GRAND RAPIDS, Mich. (WOOD) — Salmon fishing is a big industry in Michigan, but salmon are not native to the Great Lakes and it takes a lot of work to maintain the population.

Salmon were first introduced to the Great Lakes because of invasive species. Sea lamprey entered the ecosystem and began to decimate the population of lake trout, which were the native predator. Other invasive species were then able to come in, like the alewife. 

Jay Wesley, the Lake Michigan basin coordinator with the state Department of Natural Resources, said the DNR first decided to introduce coho and Chinook salmon in the 1960s to control the invasive species. The salmon matured and became a perfect predator for the alewife. 

It didn’t take long for anglers to start catching salmon and now the DNR tries to maintain some alewife population as prey for the salmon since salmon fishing has become such a big industry. Wesley says that salmon create a $7 billion fishery in the Great Lakes and provides great economic benefits. Port cities like Grand Haven, Muskegon and South Haven are now busy and full of charter boats to take anglers out.

Most of the salmon are naturally reproduced but the DNR still supplies a massive number to keep up with demand. According to Wesley, the state of Michigan alone will release about 1.6 million fish this year. 

Shana Ramsey, a fisheries interpreter at the Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery north of Mattawan, said there’s much more that goes into raising the fish than just sprinkling food in the tank. The hatchery has about 800,000 Chinook salmon this sping. Additionally, it has between 14 million and 15 million walleye eggs and between 700,000 and 800,000 yearling steelhead trout. 

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery & Visitor Center in Almena Township, west of Kalamazoo. (Aug. 3, 2020)

The salmon eggs typically arrive at the hatchery in early October each year. They take about 45 days to hatch, then they move to a large tank where they stay until the following spring. They’re about 4 to 5 inches long when they are released, typically sometime in May. 

The work done at the hatchery supports the fishing industry, but it’s also important for conservation efforts. According to Ramsey, the hatchery helps species survive by increasing their population numbers.

Wesley added that there are over 187 invasive species in the Great Lakes, so there will never be a native-only ecosystem. The work at the hatchery is important for discovering empty niches and filling them. 

There are six DNR hatcheries in Michigan. The Wolf Lake State Fish Hatchery is free for families to visit and offers nature trails, a museum, hatchery tours and fishing for kids.