State natural resource program raises salmon, sells surplus

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By KALEY FECH
Capital News Service

LANSING – Each fall, many Chinook and coho salmon make their way from the Great Lakes to their birth streams to spawn and die. But some end up on people’s dinner plates.

The Department of Natural Resources (DNR) maintains weirs along several rivers that block the fish and allow for the collection of the fish’s eggs and sperm to help more spawn survive. A weir is an obstruction that is placed across a river and used to catch fish.

“The weirs are used to bring the fish into a facility where we can do an egg take to help supplement natural reproduction,” said Aaron Switzer, the manager of the DNR’s Northern Lower Peninsula hatcheries. “That’s usually needed to support the number of fish that we want to target in the Great Lakes for sport fishing.”

The eggs that are collected are fertilized, incubated and reared for a year and a half before they’re released.

Once the DNR’s egg take needs are met, the agency sells surplus salmon to the public. The fish that eggs are collected from are typically ground up and used for making pet food because their flesh isn’t suitable for human consumption, Switzer said.

“The DNR has a contract with American-Canadian Fisheries, and they’re the ones that collect the fish at the weirs, Switzer said. “We operate the weirs, they collect the fish. They’ll process the fish and market them to retailers. Then people can buy fillets from them.”

The DNR’s relationship with American-Canadian Fisheries is highly valued because the department doesn’t have the manpower or the resources to handle all of the salmon, he said.

This year, four Northern Lower Peninsula retailers are selling the surplus.

“They’re really really fresh,” said Lynn Davis, owner of the AuSable River Store in Oscoda. “It’s not like they’re flown in from Alaska or anything like that. I’ll go pick them up on Thursday and sell them on Friday and they’ll be all gone.”

The other participating stores are in Brethren, Oscoda and East Tawas.

In addition to being fresh, the salmon are cheap, Davis said.

“A lot of people can’t afford the prices of salmon in the stores right now,” he said. “They’re very high. We can give them a good price.”

A lot of people who buy fillets from him are people who either can’t fish anymore or don’t have the time, Davis said.

He picks up salmon two to three times each fall, depending on demand.

The bulk of salmon run between mid-September and the first couple of weeks in October, although stragglers continue to come through late October, Switzer said.

However, later in the run, the fish are no longer suitable for human consumption.

“Salmon have a relatively short life cycle,” Switzer said. “It’s usually about three years. So when they come back, they’re coming back for one purpose, and all of their energy is being used for reproduction. The whole process of spawning, fanning gravel with their tails, protecting their nests for a little while, takes its toll on the fish.”

Davis said people come back to buy fish year after year.

“I’ve got one person who comes in every year from Detroit and picks up around 40 fish,” he said. “He’ll come with a list and buy salmon fillets for a bunch of people.

The retailers that sell the salmon are typically the same year after year. This year’s retailers are:

  • Andy’s Tackle Box, Brethren
  • AuSable River Store, Oscoda
  • Lixie’s Fish Market, East Tawas
  • Wellman’s Bait & Tackle, Oscoda