Port Washington (Surrogate King Salmon Parents)

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Port Washington —

 Over the last 50 years many Lake Michigan anglers have developed a love affair with chinook salmon. A batch of projects at Wisconsin sites this spring is demonstrating a new depth to that affection.

“You could call it baby sitting,” said Bob Hammen of West Bend, president of the Ozaukee chapter of Great Lakes Sport Fishermen. “We’re definitely trying to do what we can to help the fish.”

Hammen and his fellow club members are among a handful of Wisconsin organizations that recently entered into an agreement with state officials in an effort to improve survival and return rates of chinook — or King — salmon. The non-native species was first stocked in Lake Michigan in the 1960s.

A state law passed in 2013 allows clubs and other volunteers to take delivery of state-reared salmon and hold and feed the young fish for up to eight weeks in net pens along the Lake Michigan shore.

The young fish, called “smolts,” will then be released into the lake. Angling groups are hopeful the additional rearing time and care at local sites will increase survival and imprinting and result in higher returns to “natal” waters when the fish mature.

Under the traditional stocking methods, fish are hatched and raised to a certain size before being dumped into the target water. It’s sink or swim for the fish, which must orient to the new location, find food and avoid predators.

It had long been legal for clubs to use net pens to hold fish for a day or two before release. The Milwaukee chapter of Great Lakes Sport Fishermen has used net pens for 25 years to help young chinook acclimate to the Milwaukee harbor prior to release. The club held the fish no longer than 48 hours.

Assembly Bill 352 created a permitting process that allows clubs to hold the young fish for much longer and, significantly, to feed the fish.

The law requires interested parties to submit a project plan, enter into a cooperative fish rearing agreement and obtain a state permit.

This year, young chinook will be monitored and fed by clubs at Marinette, Gill’s Rock, Kewaunee, Port Washington, Racine and Kenosha, said Brad Eggold, fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources.

In each case, state hatchery trucks will deliver small fingerling chinooks (about 3 inches in length), and the local volunteers will watch over the fish for about two weeks before releasing the smolts into the lake, according to Eggold.

Hammen said his Ozaukee club of about 200 members didn’t hesitate to “jump into” the new opportunity. After the paperwork was in place, the club had to enter a design and build phase.

“We didn’t have a kit to follow,” Hammen said. “But a club like this has an amazing amount of resources.”

Club member Dave Backhaus came up with a design and led the construction. Club members built two pens, each 6 feet wide, 7 feet high and 21 feet long. Mesh netting is attached to a welded aluminum frame. Sealed PVC piping is attached on the sides of the frame to provide flotation.

The mesh forms a rectangular box to confine the salmon but protect them from predation by birds and other fish. The openings on the top mesh panel allow food to be dropped in from above.

On Tuesday, a tanker pulled into the Port Washington marina with 15,000 fingerling chinooks from Kettle Moraine Springs State Fish Hatchery. State fisheries employees set up a pipe and pumped the little salmon into the net pens.

Club members then used a power boat to slowly tow the net pens to the east side of the marina, where they are positioned in about 14 feet of water.

It will be home for the young salmon for the next two weeks. The fish will be fed pellets provided by the hatchery.

It’s not certain if the special treatment will result in higher returns of mature fish to the stocking sites.

No study has been done in Wisconsin on such rearing practices, said Eggold.

So this year, the DNR will use coded wire tag technology in an effort to evaluate fish stocked at two sites. From 30 to 50% of the young salmon stocked in Kewaunee and Racine this year will be held and fed for two weeks in net pens in local waters. The balance of the chinook at the two sites will be treated conventionally and released directly into the lake.

The release of fish in both “treatments” at each site will be scheduled for the same date in early May, Eggold said.

Unique tag codes will allow DNR crews in the coming years to evaluate any differences in survival, growth and return rates between the “net pen” and “traditional” fish. The coded wire tags are tiny metal rods inserted into the snouts of fish at the hatchery. The wire is inscribed with numbers and characters and allows fish to be marked and later identified.

For now, though, club members are enjoying their new roles as surrogate salmon parents. If all goes as planned, club members will gather under the cover of darkness on May 5 in Port Washington and open the end panels on the net pens, Hammen said.

The young salmon will then be free to begin life in the wild of Lake Michigan.

“We think it can help,” Hammen said. “We’re all pretty excited about it.”

Category: Salmon & Trout

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