MILWAUKEE -- The collapse of the Lake Michigan yellow perch fishery is one of the unwelcome, cascading consequences of invasive species in the Great Lakes.
As zebra and quagga mussels have filtered food out of the ecosystem, the "fish of the people" has dwindled.
In its wake, a vital commercial industry, a wholesome source of recreation, a healthy local food source and an urban connection to nature have all but disappeared.
As damaging as all that is to our way of life, it's been just as distressing to observe the performance of the region's fisheries managers.
Not long ago, I wrote that the Lake Michigan Perch Summit did a good job explaining the problems facing perch -- all of which have been detailed for years -- but "failed utterly in the only real reason to gather people from around the lake -- an open and honest discussion of strategies to help perch recover."
Nearly 20 years after Wisconsin and other states enacted their only measures to try to help perch -- cuts in commercial and sport harvests -- no other proposal was brought to the table.
It seemed as though the summit last March was a waste of time.
In its aftermath, concerned anglers, business owners and elected representatives have added their voice in a call for action on the perch crisis.
And to its credit, the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources has listened.
As the weeks have passed, I can unequivocally say, I like what I'm hearing.
Among efforts I'm aware of, perch anglers Tim Hansen of Racine and Joe Moreau of Sturtevant called and emailed DNR executive assistant Scott Gunderson on March 28 to express support for new ideas in Wisconsin perch management.
Businessmen Joe Kiriaki of Racine and Bob DeAngelis of Kenosha contacted the DNR, too, with similar messages.
And on April 10, Rep. Cory Mason (D-Racine) and Sen. John Lehman (D-Racine) wrote a letter to the agency, expressing concern that "current efforts have not resulted in a revitalized perch population and no money has been allocated to alternative plans such as stocking." Mason and Lehman urged the agency to include money in its fall 2014 budget proposal for "increasing the availability of perch through stocking programs and other proactive measures."
Later that day, DNR fisheries manager Randy Schumacher wrote back to the legislators and outlined a refreshing change in approach.
"Although it may be impossible to do anything on a lake-wide scale to restore the perch populations of the past, we feel we can, and should work on a local scale to enhance perch populations where habitat is more suitable," Schumacher said. "And that would be in our harbors and estuaries."
Lake Michigan has changed dramatically in the last 25 years, principally because of the mussels. The water is far clearer and plankton levels are much reduced. Researchers report seeing the bottom of the lake from the deck of vessels in 100 feet of water.
If you like fish, the change is not positive.
"Most of our major metropolitan areas have river estuaries where the combination of warmer waters and higher productivity can support a yellow perch fishery," Schumacher continued. "We intend to look at those estuaries and see if there are any management functions we can employ to locally enhance perch numbers."
There is no one associated with the perch collapse who reasonably expects the lake to return to a pre-zebra and -quagga state. But could local sites provide decent perch populations?
"We think so," Schumacher said. "At least we can try to increase their productivity to meet some of the demand."
Schumacher concluded his letter with a very encouraging message.
"I hope you take this as a pragmatic approach to a significant issue -- providing a quality sport fishery for our citizens. That is a mission we do not take lightly. We will continue to explore every management option to meet that charge."
Up until now, the DNR has fallen short on perch. While millions of dollars are spent each year on stocking and management of trout and salmon in Lake Michigan -- mostly non-native species -- no funding has been allocated to even attempt a perch stocking or habitat experiment.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been absent without leaveon the issue. Although its own criteria say the national fish hatchery system is used, in part, to "restore native species before they become threatened or endangered," it has failed to initiate any action on behalf of the lake's perch.
The native fish community and the people of Wisconsin deserve better.
I spoke to Ron Bruch, DNR fisheries director, about the department's plans.
"We know how valuable the perch fishery has been," Bruch said. "It's especially valuable in the cities along the lake. If there are things we can do to enhance the fisheries in the urban areas, we want to do it."
Bruch said he and his staff are looking "at ways, if we have a reasonable expectation of success and at a cost we can afford, to improve the fishery."
Though he has been fisheries director for just two months, Bruch is well known to the Wisconsin angling community. Among his chief attributes is his ability to communicate and work with conservation groups and individuals.
Bruch has a long history of working well with organizations including Walleyes For Tomorrow and Sturgeon For Tomorrow in the Lake Winnebago region.
When he said "we're in this together," I believe him.
If it's a matter of finding aquaculture expertise, we don't have to go far. Fred Binkowski of the UWM Great Lakes Water Institute is arguably the foremost authority on perch rearing. He developed techniques to raise perch in a hatchery setting more than 20 years ago.
Bruch has proposed a public meeting to be held in Milwaukee in October to present information on the perch crisis and discuss possible actions.
"Before we say we can stock or put any other program in place, we've got to talk to the people," Bruch said.
Just maybe a Perch For Tomorrow will result. Or habitat projects in Wisconsin harbors will yield multi-species benefits. Or a collaboration of local businesses and universities will develop a lower cost, more productive aquaculture technique.
This much is clear: The DNR has signaled a new willingness to explore management options to the perch collapse.
Anglers, conservation groups and businesses should seize the opportunity to get involved in the conversation.
I'll keep you posted on the meeting specifics. The department is likely to finalize the details in the coming weeks.
Any solution to the perch problem may only partly satisfy expectations. And no program is likely to be simple or quick.
But fishing has always been partly about optimism. The change in approach signaled by the DNR since April has given new hope for the perch fishery.
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