Wisconsin DNR response to the “Wisconsin Muskie Restoration Project”

Category: article

 Apr 8th, 2005 by OutdoorsFIRST 

Modified Apr 8th, 2005 at 12:00 AM

The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has received several inquiries about a report entitled “Wisconsin Muskellunge Restoration Project” which was prepared by several concerned musky anglers and has been distributed on the internet. While the authors raise important issues and are to be commended for their enthusiasm for improving Wisconsin’s musky fishery, this report contains some serious scientific flaws and makes some recommendations which if implemented could seriously damage Wisconsin’s already outstanding and popular musky fishery.Most importantly, the report erroneously concludes that Wisconsin is stocking an “inferior strain” of muskellunge. Unfortunately the authors have incorrectly interpreted existing scientific data and relied on an evolutionary theory that has been debunked by virtually all agency and university researchers. The truth is that Wisconsin uses only wild fish for brood stock in its hatchery program, and all of these fish are native to the river drainages in Wisconsin. They have never been mixed with any strains from outside the area. There is simply no credible scientific evidence that these fish are genetically different from what occurred here historically, or that they exhibit inferior growth or survival characteristics. In fact, there are numerous examples of lakes where fish from our hatchery system perform very well, confirming that environmental conditions are at least as important as stain in determining growth and size-structure of muskellunge. Immediately discontinuing stocking of these fish would jeopardize the fisheries of all of Wisconsin’s stocked musky waters.While the strain used for stocking is one of many important factors, there are no short cuts when it comes to managing for trophy muskellunge. Scientific investigations clearly show that Wisconsin musky populations have the genetic potential to reach trophy sizes. However, the trophy potential of a particular water body is dependent on its size, forage base, angling pressure, angling regulations, and musky population density. The Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has a comprehensive muskellunge management program that continually evaluates all of these factors and strives to produce the best musky fishing possible in our state.Contrary to assertions in the report, Wisconsin’s musky fishery is well managed and provides excellent fishing. Musky populations are at historical highs. They are found in 711 lakes and 80 rivers across the state, anglers catch 300,000 muskies each year, catch rates average about 25 hours/fish, harvest has declined considerably over the last decade, due largely to voluntary catch-and-release, and, as a result, the average size of muskies has increased. And the musky fishery, along with Wisconsin’s other outstanding fisheries, continues to be extremely popular with anglers. Wisconsin’s 1.4 million anglers (6th highest in the nation) fish 1.1 million days each year for muskies. Wisconsin ranks 2nd in the nation in the total number of fishing days by non-residents. For a more in-depth discussion of Wisconsin’s musky fishery, please see an article “Long Live the King” in the December, 2002 issue of the Wisconsin Natural Resources magazine (http://www.wnrmag.com/stories/2002/dec02/musky.htm) . The authors cite evidence from the Muskies Inc. ‘Lunge Log program in which voluntarily submitted catch reports suggest that Wisconsin lags behind Minnesota in the number of 50″ and larger fish reported. This database however contains only muskies self reported by anglers and there can be large discrepancies among various sources of information, which calls into question the utility of voluntary data for making management decisions. For example, in 2004 there were more 50″ and larger muskies reported in the Vilas county Musky Marathon (17) than were reported in the Muskies Inc. log for the entire state of Wisconsin. And there were no muskies ever reported from Nancy Lake (Washburn County) which was cited by the report as the prime example of the success of the Minnesota Leech Lake “strain.” In fact, there has never been a 50″ musky reported from Washburn County. Clearly, anglers are very reluctant to report catches of 50″ muskies, particularly from small lakes. All of Wisconsin’s Class A1 (trophy) musky waters combined roughly equal the surface area of Leech Lake (112,000 acres), and the number of 50″ fish reported from these two sources are comparable.It is unrealistic to compare Wisconsin muskellunge waters with Minnesota waters. Wisconsin lakes are much smaller, and Minnesota’s larger lakes have a greater carrying capacity that can produce more large fish. Wisconsin also has much higher angling pressure on its smaller lakes. Dedicated musky anglers do release large numbers of fish, but many are still harvested (a 2001 UW survey showed an annual harvest of 37,000) and many others die of handling mortality. Our creel surveys often project total catches that exceed the estimated abundance of muskellunge, showing that fish are often caught more than once a year. And finally, Minnesota has a history of having higher muskellunge minimum size limits. Wisconsin waters can and do produce trophy fish but our smaller inland lakes will never produce the numbers that much larger lakes in Minnesota or the Great Lakes will produce. The Department has several efforts currently underway to improve its muskellunge management programs. Recent studies have shown that overstocking a lake can result in high populations that grow slowly – presumably because of insufficient food. Also, stocking into lakes that have adequate natural reproduction may not increase the population and may actually depress the number of natural fish. The Department is entering year 5 of a major long-term evaluation of stocking rates. Stocking rates have been systematically adjusted on 118 waters statewide depending on the level of existing natural reproduction, and follow up fish surveys are being conducted. Initial results confirm the recent studies and subsequent changes in stocking practices will be made over the next 5-10 years as the results are finalized.The Department is also actively evaluating the results of increases in minimum size limits. Muskies are a long-lived species, so it takes many years to see results from such studies, but there have been significant increases in the number of 40-50″ muskies on lakes such as Namekagon in Bayfield County which received a 50″ minimum size limit in 1996. We have seen similar results in 40″ size limit lakes that are being studied.The Department is initiating a new effort to fully evaluate its hatchery broodstock program. This effort will scientifically address the broodstock strain trophy potential issue brought up in the report, and do so in a way that comprehensively incorporates all the other factors discussed above. It will also allow the Department to update its broodstock handling procedures and stocking policies to assure that the latest science is used. The Wisconsin muskellunge team, comprised of department and university fisheries biologists and representatives from the Conservation Congress and muskellunge fishing groups, will develop a comprehensive brood stock management plan for muskellunge that will be completed and implemented as part of the 2006 stocking year hatchery production cycle. The Department is also encouraging musky clubs who want to privately stock other strains to do so in 2005 in waters where the strain used is unlikely to harm native fish. Clubs interested in this option should contact their local DNR fisheries manager to obtain a list of candidate waters and information on how to obtain a stocking permit.For more detailed information on this program please visit our musky fishing web site at: http://www.dnr.wi.gov/org/water/fhp/fish/musky/index.htmTim Simonson, FH/4 Bureau of Fisheries Management and Habitat Protection DNR, PO BOX 7921, 101 S WEBSTER ST MADISON WI 53707 (608) 266-5222 voice (608) 266-2244 fax

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