On first attempt to reach Michigan Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Research Biologist David Fielder, he wasn’t monitoring fish populations or water quality. He was busy with a perch basket lunch.
The yellow perch is a staple of Great Lakes commercial and recreational fishing, and Friday fish fries. Fielder is one of many regional DNR specialists who monitors the Great Lakes perch population.
“Saginaw Bay, arguably, has historically been the single biggest source of yellow perch in Lake Huron,” said Fielder.
Saginaw Bay’s 2020 estimate of yellow perch abundance was 76,596 yellow perch in their recreational fishery and about 44,000 in their commercial.
“Both sound like large numbers,” said Fielder,” but are actually a fraction of what these fisheries used to harvest.”
Fielder said the Saginaw’s perch population has trended downwards since a late 1980s boom all thanks to a roughly 10-inch herring.
Alewives, an invasive herring species, came to Lake Huron in the 1950s from the Atlantic Ocean and would feed on newly hatched yellow perch. He said in the early 2000s complex food-web changes caused the alewives to virtually disappear overnight.
“We saw a lot of changes in our native fish population,” said Fielder.
Once alewives were out of the picture, the walleye population—yellow perch’s bigger cousin also suppressed by alewives—exploded in Saginaw Bay.
“We formally met our walleye recovery targets in 2009,” said Fielder.
While walleye abundance has grown sustainability in recent years, Fielder said yellow perch’s place in the food chain has not caused a similar increase.
“Everything’s feeding heavily on these young yellow perch, and that seems to be a bottleneck,” said Fielder.
Fielder said the decline is a manageable problem.
The Michigan DNR reduced bag limits for yellow perch from 50-a-day to 25-a-day in 2015 and expanded the bag limit reduction statewide in 2019.
According to internal briefing documents provided by the MDNR, most anglers supported the statewide bag limit and recognized they were facing lower population levels and invasive species. Before the reduction, the MDNR found that only 3.5% of Saginaw Bay anglers were meeting previous 50-fish-per-day limits. Most recreational anglers do not catch the bag limit, catching few to no yellow perch.
Low but stable
MDNR Charlevoix Fisheries Research Station Manager David Clapp said the often talked-about perch shortage is based on a not-quite-accurate understanding of the fish’s changing ecosystem.
“We’re seeing really sort of stable numbers for adult fish right now in Michigan waters, but much lower than what they were. People always compare what we’re seeing now back to what it was back in the ‘80s,” said Clapp.
Clapp said there was roughly 2 to 3 million fish a year in Michigan waters during past perch booms. He said it would be difficult to get those numbers back as current recreational harvests total half a million.
“I don’t think we’re gonna see that with the way the lakes have changed,” said Clapp.
Clapp said a major factor are zebra mussels, an invasive species that feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton —a necessary young perch diet component.
MDNR and other agencies monitor fish populations through the Great Lakes Fishery Commission. Clapp said more yellow perch are in higher productivity areas like Saginaw Bay, Lake Erie and Green Bay, than Lake Michigan where productivity is likely lower now than it was in the ‘80s.
Down by the bay
Life of a yellow perch in Green Bay—Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan arm—is drastically similar to their Saginaw Bay fish-friends, except that badger state perch can be plucked by commercial fisheries.
Green Bay is the only commercial harvest location on Lake Michigan besides Michigan tribal fisheries.
Wisconsin DNR Senior Fisheries Biologist Tammie Paoli said Green Bay’s warmer, shallower waters alongside increased vegetation for egg-laying and juvenile fish nursery habitat helped the perch population stabilize.
“The condition of the Bay compared to Lake Michigan is really night and day, “said Paoli, who works for the WDNR in Peshtigo.
Wisconsin’s Lake Michigan waters see roughly 60 commercial fishing licenses, but Paoli estimates less than a dozen active yellow perch commercial fishers in Green Bay.
Green Bay saw a yellow perch population of roughly 268,000 in 2020. Despite a stable perch population, Green Bay’s commercial fishing has been overshadowed by the productive nature of Lake Erie.
“There’s a lot of fish that come out of Lake Erie so that really drives the local market here, and prices might influence whether a local fisherman even bothers to go fishing,” said Paoli.
At its peak, there were an estimated 34 million perch in Green Bay during 1984. Lake Erie had an estimated 75 million in the ‘80s, but is currently facing a population decline spawning harvest cuts and frustrated Ohioan anglers.
Paoli estimated that Green Bay currently bobbles between one to two million adult yellow perch.
“It’s definitely down drastically, but still maintaining its own enough to sustain a sport and commercial fishery,” said Paoli.
While scrappy yellow perch fight for survival, many anglers cling to nostalgia and memories of big hauls over empty buckets.
“People that lived through the peaks in the ‘80s still ask ‘When are the perch coming back?’” said Paoli. “Obviously I don’t have an answer to that and in my lifetime, they may never.”
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Featured image: Yellow perch (Photo courtesy of Michigan Department of Natural Resources)