Conservation efforts from the past are creating a booming fishing economy in the Saginaw Bay

Just a few years ago, very few walleye swam through the Saginaw Bay and Saginaw River. Now, the Great Lakes Bay Region is one of the premier walleye fishing destinations in the nation.

The Saginaw Bay is now the “walleye factory of Lake Huron,” said Michael Kelly, director of the Saginaw Bay Watershed Initiative Network, one of The Conservation Fund’s longest-running watershed restoration and sustainability programs.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates the Saginaw Bay’s recreational fishery economic worth at $30 million.The fact that the Michigan Department of Natural Resources estimates the Saginaw Bay’s recreational fishery economic worth at $30 million is, for Kelley, the greatest testament to the work of not only his organization, but also that of other conservation-minded Michiganders.

“Walleye in the Saginaw Bay were ‘extirpated.’ They were nearly extinct, so to speak,” he said. “This was because of a number of factors, including commercial netting and habitat changes. The comeback of walleye was started by several conservation groups, including walleye clubs working alongside natural resources groups. They released walleye into the bay, so the population of walleye was augmented by walleye that were raised in ponds.”

The economic impact of fishing goes beyond the direct costs associated with the sport. Anglers spend money in gas stations, restaurants, retail stores, hotels, campgrounds, boats, and bait and tackle shops. Kelly, who grew up near the Kawkawlin River, witnessed the change during his 40 years of fishing. He recalled growing up with few to no walleye in the area.

“We fished bass, pike, really whatever was biting,” he said. “In the early 70s, there weren’t many walleye there, so that wasn’t really something people targeted.”

Edward Clements, who has been fishing in this area for 40 years, says he has seen more and more anglers interested in opportunities in this region.Today, walleye are a staple fish that draw anglers from all over the Midwest to the Great Lakes Bay Region. “It’s something that came along in my lifetime that has exploded to become a really important fishery and part of the regional economy,” Kelly said.

Kelly said this change was a direct result of years of effort by conservationists to develop this walleye population. These groups were so successful that beginning in 2004, Kelly said walleye were no longer planted in Saginaw Bay.

“That’s a naturally reproducing population there right now,” he said. “The Saginaw Bay walleye fishery restoration is one of the greatest restoration stories in Michigan history. It’s really an amazing thing that we have the amazing fishery that we have now, particularly since it didn’t exist at all a few years ago.”

Fishing has always been an important to the economy and environment in the Great Lakes Bay Region. Business has boomed, Kelly said, even more after the introduction of walleye. In fact, because of the walleye’s migration trends, the fish from the bay and river also help other local Michigan towns and cities.

“It’s an economic boom to all of these communities along the river,” he said. “Later on in the spring, these fish will exit the river. So that becomes an economic boom for communities like Pinconning and Essexville that are catering to boat fishermen who are fishing offshore. It’s a year-round fishery that contributes to the economy of cities along the river and the bay.”

Besides walleye, Kelly noted there are other great local fisheries.

“Walleye really are the biggest gamefish these days,” he said, “but there continues to be a limited perch population. The perch are extraordinarily low right now. It may be a cyclical event, or it may be an angling and netting pressure that is on them as well.”

Efforts to improve the fisheries in this region continue. Pollution, climate change, overfishing, and habitat destruction all affect the health of fish in the area.Kelly said small mouth bass are another popular local fishery.

“That’s something that is more of a summertime fishery,” he said, “but it’s been ranked nationally for fisheries with small mouth bass. It’s really getting to have a reputation as a fishery with a wide variety.”

Learn more about efforts to revitalize the lake sturgeon population in the Saginaw Basin Watershed.

While walleye season on the Saginaw River is closed now, Edward Clements said he believe it’s always a great time to look for other fish in this area. The Bay City Public Schools teacher and Bay City commissioner has been fishing for over 40 years and says he understands exactly why the Saginaw Bay Area is a top five fishing destination in the country.

– Anglers from throughout the Midwest come to the Great Lakes Bay Region to fish for walleye both from boats and the shoreline.“The fishing has been very consistent over the last 10 years here,” he said. “There are definitely more people fishing than ever because the fishing is so good.”

Kelly agreed that the ability to cast from shore or boat to catch walleye and other fish in the Saginaw Bay Area is “unparalleled” anywhere else in the nation.

“It’s an opportunity that everyone should go out and try,” he said. “See what all the excitement is about because it’s something you can’t do anywhere else in the country the way you can here.”

Communities all along the waterway benefit from a strong fishing economy.Like Kelly, Clements not only is drawn to fishing for the sport, but also for the economic impact it has on his community.

“Fishing is important to me and all other anglers because our dollars restored and maintained the fishery,” Clements said. “Buying a fishing license directly sends dollars to the fishery. Buying fishing tackle, boat and motors sends dollars directly to the fishery through excise taxes created by the Dingell-Johnson Act. The fisheries we have in the state of Michigan are directly due to sport fishermen through license and equipment purchases.”

The Dingell-Johnson Act provides federal aid to Michigan for managing and restoring fisheries. The money comes from taxes on specific fishing equipment.

Clements said the economic impact of fishing goes beyond the direct costs associated with the sport. Anglers spend money in gas stations, restaurants, retail stores, hotels, campgrounds, boats, and bait and tackle shops, to name a few.

“Tourism is so important to our area,” Clements said. “What brings people here? The world-class fishery we have. If this fishery is depleted, there is no reason to come here. I look back 10, 15 years ago, and you never saw full boat launches, never saw so many boats on the Saginaw River. Now it is crowded, which is good. All of those people coming here are spending money.”

Clements and Kelly cautioned that while the current local fishing economy is strong, it is important to continue protecting the environment.

“Protecting sport fishing rights, conservation of fisheries, conservation and restoration of habitat and fish stocks are more important than ever before,” Clements said. “There are enormous pressures on our fishery that we must be aware of and do all we can to counter them. Pollution, climate change, commercial overfishing, and habitat destruction must be on the front burner of local government, state government, federal government, and conservation clubs.”



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