For the first time, the Wisconsin Department of Natural resources is considering a management plan for cisco in Lake Superior. Also known as lake herring, cisco are a primary prey species for whitefish and lake trout, and are a prized catch by foodies: it’s eaten fresh or smoked, and its roe are a delicacy referred to by some as “bluefin caviar.” Cisco populations are under strain due to increased commercial fishery demand, and the DNR is doing research with the consultation of commercial fishermen to establish a quota for catchable population per year.
The Ashland Daily Press spoke with Terry Margenau, DNR Lake Superior fisheries supervisor, who reports that commercial harvest of cisco in Lake Superior spiked after 2008, when commercial processors began to accept whole fish.
“The annual harvest from 2008 to 2014 averaged nearly 1.4 million pounds, a level more than three times the average annual harvest from 2000 to 2007,” Margenau to the Daily Press. “The cisco harvest from Wisconsin waters now accounts for two-thirds of the total Lake Superior harvest and there is concern among Wisconsin fisheries managers as well as those from neighboring states and Canada about survey data that shows declining abundance of the fish.”
If cisco populations are under strain, so too are the lake trout and whitefish which feed on them. These considerations all propelled the DNR’s decision to establish a management plan. DNR officials have held stakeholder meetings in Bayfield and at the Northern Great Lakes Visitor Center this week, seeking comments on their management proposals. They are proposing a quota of 15 percent of the catchable population per year.
Margenau told the Daily Press that the management plan has two main goals: to create a sustainable fishery, and keep commercial fishermen in business. The DNR are consulting with the commercial fishermen in good faith as they do research to base the management plan on, and Margenau commented that the fishermen have been very helpful in the process because they care about the fishery, and diminishing numbers of cisco can threaten their livelihood.
“They are pointing out some things that we haven’t seen because they are out there a lot and they have made some good points and we have modified the management plan as we have gone along over the past several months,” he said.
Commercial fishermen have even offered to assist with the DNR’s continued research efforts, as the department finds itself short on staffing and budgets.
The Daily Press spoke with fisherman Craig Hoopman of Bayfield, WI, to get his perspective on the management plan research efforts. “It’s actually very simple — at the end of the day, any time you talk about a total allowable catch, or harvest, and they are going to base it on a three-year basis,” he said. “If you don’t spend the next three years collecting all the data for all of the Lake Superior waters in Wisconsin, you won’t get a figure on the actual size of the biomass that is out there.”
Currently, the DNR is studying areas of Lake Superior that are fished heavily by the state’s commercial industry. Last fall, Hoopman observed that the areas studied by the DNR were 10 percent of the waters being fished. Because cisco are a pelagic species, their movement is spread out over the lake and both the DNR and the fishermen are curious to get the bigger picture.
“They could be on the south shore today, they could be headed towards the north shore tomorrow,” he said. “We want to know what the total number is. Right now they are seeing between 14 and 19 million pounds, that is what their acoustic soundings say. We are interested in getting the whole picture of what is out there, so we know we are not over harvesting. Are we under harvesting? What is the true picture?”
Hoopman and other commercial fishermen are lending their aid to the research because the DNR lacks the funding to pursue the research fully. While the DNR has invested to retrofit its boat with equipment to conduct the research, its time on the lake for actual field work has been limited. “It’s a state of the art boat and it should be out there doing it’s job,” Hoopman said. “Let’s get it out there for more than six days for this project. If we have to go to Madison to stress the need to use this boat, we are all on board to do it.”