A native species, and the once most plentiful fish in Lake Michigan, may be poised for a comeback, especially if Charles Bronte of the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has a say.
"Make no mistake, our (USF&WS) mission is to restore native species," Bronte said during a workshop organized by Indiana-Illinois Sea Grant in Hammond last fall.
The timing for a cisco resurgence, specifically the lake herring variety, may be right.
"All forage species are low right now and cisco are better suited to the current zooplankton (prey fish food) community in Lake Michigan,” Bronte said.
At the least, it is hoped cisco would diversify the forage fish population, perhaps stabilize it into the future.
"Adults are 12 to 13 inches at maturity — they'll outgrow (the prey size preferred by) most predators (trout and salmon)," Bronte said.
Theory is they would be far less susceptible to being wiped out like alewives in Lake Huron in the early 2000's and perhaps in Lake Michigan where alewife appeared to be nearing the brink of collapse in 2015.
History is cisco were the bulk of the biomass and commercial fishery in Lake Michigan, as well as the other Great Lakes, up until the mid-1900s. Over fishing and the invasion of non-native species — smelt, alewife and sea lamprey — wiped out most of the populations. At one time there were seven species of cisco, but only remnants of bloater chub and lake herring survive today.
For most of the past 50 years, alewives thrived and almost exclusively supported a multi-billion dollar salmon fishery, but have spiraled downward in recent years. Over stocking of salmon and lake trout are believed to have accelerated the decline, but chief cause of alewife demise is another invasive, the quagga mussel.
Hundreds of trillions of the thumb-nail sized filter feeders now cover the bottom of Lake Michigan and quaggas continually siphon most of the nutrients out of the lake. Results are trawl surveys indicate total prey fish (alewives, smelt, cisco, etc.) are at their lowest since trawl surveys began in the 1970s.
Essentially, Lake Michigan is far more sterile now than it has been at any point in our lifetime. Biologists believe it has become more like Lake Superior in recent years, which happens to be the lone place in the Great Lakes where cisco continue to thrive.
"The decision to restore cisco is up to the states, the LMC (Lake Michigan Committee)," Bronte said. "We (USF&WS hatcheries) have the capacity to raise millions."
The LMC's annual meeting is in March where they'll review a white paper, or fact analysis, provided by Bronte. There may not be any decision forthcoming, but it will be discussed.
The LMC, and other interested parties, are keeping an eye on small-scale cisco restoration projects underway. The USF&WS has stocked lake herring in Saginaw Bay (Lake Huron) the past two years and the Little Traverse Bay Band of Odawa Indians is conducting its own experiment in northern Lake Michigan.
• Ice fishing events: Solid ice conditions should return in time for a trio of contests set for next weekend.
The Friends of Fishing and the Valparaiso Parks Department will hold a contest at Loomis Lake on Saturday; contact Randy at (219) 730-1566. The Eagles Club of La Porte has scheduled a contest for Stone Lake in La Porte on Saturday; see Fraternal Order of Eagles No. 2439 on Facebook for flier, or call (219) 326-8540. The Griffith Ikes opens its property to the public for a contest on Saturday; see Griffith Chapter, Izaak Walton League of America on Facebook.
In February, the 46th annual Fish Lake Ice Fishing Derby is Feb. 3; call (219) 778-2027. The Maple City Ice Fishing Classic, put on by Friends of Fishing, is Feb. 10 on Pine and Stone Lakes; call (219) 510-3193. The North American Ice Fishing Circuit Open Qualifier is Feb. 11 on Pine Lake; visit naifc.com.