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Giving salmon a helping hand in Port PDF Print E-mail
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Written by KRISTYN HALBIG ZIEHM   
Wednesday, 29 April 2015 21:20

Lake pen project overseen by sport fishermen helps fingerlings acclimate to area

 It’s not unusual to see fishermen in the Port Washington harbor, but this spring they are doing something a little different.
  
 Instead of catching fish, members of the Ozaukee Chapter of the Great Lakes Sport Fishermen head to the marina three times a day to feed 15,000 fingerlings.

  
 The young chinook salmon are being kept in two net pens, acclimating to the lake for a couple of weeks in the hopes they will imprint on the area and, when they reach the end of their life cycle in about four years, return here to lay their eggs.

  
 “That way, we’ll have more fish in the water,” said Dale Backhaus, the club member who spearheaded the pen project. “It’s just really important to improve the fishery.

  
 “Everyone will benefit. The shore fishermen, charter fishermen and sport fishermen will have a better fishery to harvest from. The businesses will benefit because the fishermen go to the restaurants, the gas stations, the coffee shops. The city will benefit because there will be more tourism.”

  
 It will help create future generations of fishermen, he added, noting that when a father takes his child out fishing and they don’t catch anything, it may be their last fishing outing.

  
 “But if they go out and catch one beautiful sized salmon, it could create a family bond for a long time,” Backhaus said. “Then they’re likely to return and fish time and time again.”

  
 Brad Eggold, fisheries supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources, said a number of clubs around the lake are using net pens this year, including those in Marinette, Kewaunee, Racine and Gills Rock in Door County,

  
 The DNR will begin a study to determine if the use of these pens helps in stocking the lake, he said.

  
 “In other areas of the Great Lakes, there have been mixed results,” he said. “I’m not sure they know exactly why.”

  
 It’s a long-term project, he said, noting it will be at least 2018 before the fish return as mature adults.

  
 It’s only recently that clubs were allowed to keep fish in the net pens for any length of time, Eggold  said. Previously, state law prohibited the fingerlings from being fed while in the pens, but the legislature changed  the rules in 2013.

  
 Backhaus said he heard about net pens at a club meeting when someone mentioned them in passing. He was intrigued and began looking into them, eventually selling the club on the benefits that can be realized with them.

  
 Net pens are common in Michigan, he said, and they have been successful.

  
 The club applied for and received a state permit that allows it to use the pens for five years, Backhaus said, and received permission from the city for the project as well.

  
 Backhaus designed the pens, which are 21 feet long, 7 feet high and 3 feet wide. Club members built them at Jim Brooks’ shop in Fredonia, and trucked them to the marina last week.

  
 “A lot of manpower went into it,” Backhaus said. The pens look like shoeboxes, he said, made with an aluminum tubing frame, thick mesh and PVC pipe pontoons to help keep them afloat and stable in the water.

  
 The pens were stocked with 15,000 fingerling chinook, or king, salmon raised at Kettle Moraine Springs Hatchery in Sheboygan County.

  
 The fingerlings are two to four inches long, he said, about six months old.

  
 They will stay in the pens through their smolting stage when they reach adolescence. At that point, Backhaus said, they lose their stripes and spots and turn their characteristic silver color.

  
 
At that time, he said, they will imprint on the Port lakefront.
  
 “This is the key,” he said. “They will know Sauk Creek and Port Washington is their home. Otherwise, they’ll be nomads.”

  
 The DNR has asked the club to only keep the fingerlings in the pens for two weeks, so the fish are scheduled to be released May 5.

  
 “If these fish don’t smolt by then, I’m going to beg to keep them longer,” Backhaus said.

  
 The pens offer advantages to traditional stocking, Backhaus said, because they protect the fingerlings from predators while they acclimate to the lake.

  
 Typically, he said, when the DNR stocks the lake, it dumps thousands of the fingerlings into the lake at one time. Because the fish have been raised in a hatchery under controlled conditions, the abrupt change disorients and stresses the fingerlings, Backhaus said.

  
 “The fish will flutter on the surface of the water,” he said, and that makes them easy pickings for gulls and cormorants. “They don’t know what predators are because they’re protected at the hatchery.  

  
 “The seagulls have a field day.”

  
  By letting the fingerlings acclimate in the net pens, Backhaus said, they will be at home in the lake when they are released. They won’t be disoriented, and they won’t swim at the surface.

  
 To further protect them, he said, club members plan to release the fish at night, when the birds aren’t looking to feed.

  
 Port will continue to get fingerlings stocked the old-fashioned way, Backhaus said, noting the 15,000 in the pens are a small portion of the 88,000 that will be stocked in the harbor this year.

  
 The DNR has been checking to determine where the fish that are caught come from, Backhaus said. The hatchery cuts the adipose fin off the stocked fish and implants each one with a tiny coded wire tag, much like a microchip, that can be scanned to determine where the fish was raised and released.

  
 Officials from the agency have been asking to scan the fish that are caught to check this information, he said.

  
 “That’s how we’ll know in four years or so how well we did,” Backhaus said.

  
 So far, he said, the fingerlings seem to be doing well. None have died, and they seem to be growing faster than at the hatchery.

  
 “As of now, our fish have put more weight on than we’ve fed them,” he said, evidence they’ve been feeding on the algae and plankton in the lake. “They’re strong. It’s pretty awesome.”


Image information: GREAT LAKES SPORT FISHERMAN member Jim Brooks (left), aided by other club members, helped guide a net pen into the Port Washington marina last week (top photo). The Department of Natural Resources stocked 15,000 fingerling chinook salmon into the two net pens (home page photo). The fingerlings were about six months old and two to four inches long when they were stocked (bottom photo).             Photos by Sam Arendt

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