By MARIE ORTTENBURGER
Capital News Service
LANSING — Many anglers and guides are unhappy about the Natural Resources Commission’s new ban on scattering fish parts and eggs to lure fish on trout streams.
“It kind of drives me nuts,” said Chad Betts, owner of Betts Guide Service and Outfitters in Newaygo.
Known as chumming, the practice has long been controversial. Critics say it can cause disease and that it’s an unfair way to catch more fish.
But some anglers don’t think those are reasons enough to categorically ban the practice on trout streams, as the commission did in July.
They argue that the ban will deal a blow to Michigan’s fishing tourism economy.
Chumming is helpful for fishing in the fall and winter, when steelhead metabolism slows and fish are less likely to bite. Guides like to use it to ensure visiting anglers have success.
“These people might have one day a year to fish,” said Eric Richards, owner and operator of Richards River Guide in Montague. Chumming “is not a magic bullet by any means, but it is a nice tool to have in your arsenal.”
Betts anticipates a 40-50 percent decline in fall and winter clientele. “We have customers who are saying they’re not going to come back” after hearing about the ban, Betts said.
The reason for the commission ban is chumming’s potential to harm the health of trout and salmon.
“There’s a lot of uncertainty around chumming,” said Nick Popoff, manager of the Department of Natural Resources Aquatic Species and Regulatory Affairs Unit. “Generally, conservation decisions err on the side of safety.”
Popoff cited two studies as key contributors to the commission’s decision. One 2011 study investigated potential negative impacts of using commercially cured eggs as bait. Curing eggs preserves them for longer use but can involve chemicals that increased mortality in juvenile salmon and trout. The other study, published in 1995, investigated the potential for disease transmission through eggs in Japan.
“There are other diseases that we currently don’t have in the Great Lakes that could be transmitted by eggs,” Popoff said.
Supporters of chumming feel the studies don’t substantiate the ban. They prefer to see more region-specific scientific evidence that proves chumming is harmful.
“I don’t think those are representative of our ecosystem,” Richards said of the earlier studies.
Chumming was banned in Michigan once before, from 2007-12. The concern then was that fish eggs used for chumming in the Great Lakes could transmit viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS), a fast-spreading disease that could quickly obliterate an entire species of fish. In 2012, the Great Lakes strain of VHS was found not to be transmittable via fish eggs, and the ban was lifted.
The practice came back into question after a recent increase in chumming to catch steelhead, followed shortly by an influx of complaints about it. State officials began considering how to regulate the practice in 2014.
For Michigan Trout Unlimited, it’s a matter of fairness.
“We want the largest percentage of anglers going out to get steelhead to have some degree of success,” said Executive Director Bryan Burroughs. Unregulated chumming allowed some anglers to go home with 10 to 12 steelhead, he said, but others without a bite.
Chumming supporters compare it to using more effective tools in hunting. Those who choose more challenging methods will have more of a challenge.
For example, Richards, the guide, said. “Just because it was more successful, is that really a reason to make it illegal. You chose to fly fish. Fly fishing is a challenge.”
Richards and Betts both advocate restricting how many eggs can be used to chum, which was one of five options for regulations discussed in commission meetings. The others involved banning chumming on some or all trout streams. No options suggested specific regulations on egg origin or cure ingredients.
“It was an all-or-nothing approach basically,” said Amy Trotter, deputy director of the Michigan United Conservation Clubs.
“I don’t fault the commissioners. I think they had some valid concerns about disease and about the cures,” Trotter said. “What I would have liked was a little more creative thought as to how we can address those concerns rather than banning it.”
“But if we don’t have the information and data ready to go, then banning it was the only way to address those concerns at this point,” she added.
Trotter said she hopes that in the two years before the next Michigan DNR Fishing Guide is published, chumming supporters will help come up with solutions, and that the commission will remain open to adjusting the regulation.
“We have to think through some mechanisms to actually enforce knowing where your eggs are coming from. Other states have done it. I don’t think that is insurmountable,” she said. “It certainly requires a little more work though.”
The practice is still allowed on other bodies of water.
In other Great Lakes states, chumming regulations center on the disposal of fish parts into bodies of water as litter. Wisconsin prohibits chumming unless anglers can retrieve the fish parts once they’re done using them, by using a mesh bag, for example. Ohio has similar restrictions.
“It’s the unsanitary nature of disposing of those things,” said Jeff Collingwood, supervisor of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Lake Erie Law Enforcement Unit. Disposed fish remains, he added, are unsightly, attract nuisance wildlife and eventually smell. But anglers can chum in any body of water if they clean up after themselves.
In Pennsylvania, “excessive” chumming is considered illegal littering. The practice is completely banned in Minnesota and New York.
Marie Orttenburger writes for Great Lakes Echo.