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Fish survey nets data to strengthen future fishing seasons

Courtesy Photo Captain Darren Vercnocke, left, and Fisheries Research Technician Jerek Gutierrez monitor hydroacoustic equipment on the research vessel Tanner during the 2021 Michigan Department of Natural Resources Great Lakes fish survey in this photo supplied by the DNR.

ALPENA — Miles of nets in their wake, fish data researchers have finished compiling data they’ve collected to keep anglers guessing what might show up at the end of their fishing line.

On Friday, the Michigan Department of Natural Resources reported successful data-hunting seasons by researchers headquartered at each of the DNR’s four Great Lakes fisheries research stations, including the Lake Huron station located in Alpena.

Each year, researchers prowl the Great Lakes from April to November, netting and collecting information from thousands of fish.

That information helps the people who manage the state’s fisheries decide the best ways to promote sustainable fish populations in the lakes, said Todd Wills, DNR research manager for the Lake Huron-Lake Erie area.

In 2021, the crew of the Tanner, DNR research vessel for Lake Huron, gathered samples and collected data throughout the lake, from the fingertip of the Upper Peninsula to the thumb of the lower.

While most people who see a research vessel think, “they’re collecting fish data, that’s cool,” Wills said, many don’t realize how much the behind-the-scenes work goes into crunching the numbers the researchers gather.

Biologists out of the Alpena station travel on the research vessels, using computers to do “fancy math” and producing numerous computer models, summaries, and other resources to help the people who regulate fish create the best possible environment for both fish and the people who want to catch them, he said.

Before they can work the data, the survey workers have to collect it. In 2021, researchers on the Tanner laid 100,000 feet of net – 19 miles’ worth – for their lake trout survey alone.

Researchers pulled thousands of fish over the sides of the Tanner, making detailed notes of length, weight, diet, age – gathered by means of a sample sliver of a fin – and sex of the fish.

To determine whether a fish is male or female, “Sometimes you squeeze them and you see what comes out,” Wills said. “If eggs come out, it’s a girl.”

Courtesy photo Captain Darren Vercnocke, left, collects biological data from a lake trout during the 2021 Michigan Department of Natural Resources Great Lakes fish survey in this photo supplied by the DNR.

This year’s survey indicates that lake trout are thriving in Thunder Bay, although not so much in the southern end of Lake Huron.

Preliminary results from Saginaw Bay surveys indicate walleye in greater numbers than researchers have seen in nearly 30 years, and smallmouth bass topped all previous data collected since 1969 in the far northwest end of the lake, according to Friday’s DNR announcement.

The Tanner and its crew in summer also assisted with science explorations, including remotely operated vehicle and water chemistry work at the Middle Island sinkhole north of Alpena.

In Thunder Bay, where anglers could catch any number of species on any given summer day, the fishery remains strong because of the joint work of the people who govern fishing rules and the lake-loving biologists who spend months scooping up fish, tape measures and pencils at the ready.

“The information we collect makes fishing better,” Wills said.

Courtesy photo Fisheries Research Biologist Dave Fielder holds a smallmouth bass captured near the Les Cheneaux Islands during the 2021 Michigan Department of Natural Resources Great Lakes fish survey in this photo supplied by the DNR.

Julie Riddle can be reached at 989-358-5693, jriddle@thealpenanews.com or on Twitter @jriddleX.

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