Status and trends in the fish community of Lake Superior, 2012

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The Great Lakes Science Center has conducted daytime nearshore bottom trawl surveys of Lake Superior (15-80 m bathymetric depth zone) each spring since 1978 and an offshore survey (>80 m) since 2011 to provide long-term trends of relative abundance and biomass of the fish community. In 2012, 72 nearshore and 34 offshore stations were sampled with a 12-m Yankee bottom trawl.

The 2012 estimate of lake-wide nearshore fish community biomass was 1.14 kg/ha, second lowest in the 35-year survey history, down from 3.63 kg/ha observed in the 2011 survey. Dominant species in the catch, in order of relative biomass, were bloater, rainbow smelt, lake whitefish, pygmy whitefish, and shortjaw cisco. Compared to 2011 levels, biomass of all species decreased. Year-class strengths for the 2011 cisco and bloater cohorts were well below average and ranked as the second weakest year-classes in the past 35 years. Year-class strength of rainbow smelt was the weakest in the survey record, continuing a decline that began in 2008. As in 2011, densities of hatchery lake trout remained near zero in 2012, while densities of wild (lean) lake trout and siscowet lake trout decreased. Proportions of total lake trout density in 2012 that were hatchery, wild, and siscowet were 5, 74, and 21%, respectively.

The 2012 estimate of lake-wide offshore fish community biomass was 6.9 kg/ha, down from 9.0 kg/ha in 2011. Deepwater sculpin, kiyi, and siscowet lake trout represented 98% of the fish caught in terms of both density and biomass. Community composition, number of species collected and densities and biomass for most species were similar to that observed in 2011.

Due to ship mechanical failures, nearshore sampling was delayed from mid-May to mid-June to mid-June to late August. The shift to summer sampling when the lake was stratified may have affected our estimates, thus our estimates of status and trends for the nearshore fish community in 2012 are tentative, pending results of future surveys. However, the results of the 2012 survey are comparable with those during 2009 and 2010 when lake-wide fish biomass declined to < 1.40 kg/ha. Declines in prey fish biomass since the late 1990s can be attributed to a combination of increased predation by recovered lake trout populations and infrequent and weak recruitment by the principal prey fishes, cisco and bloater. In turn declines in lake trout biomass since the mid-2000s are likely linked to declines in prey fish biomass. If lean and siscowet lake trout populations in nearshore waters continue to remain at current levels, predation mortality will likely maintain the relatively low prey fish biomass observed in recent years. Alternatively, if lake trout populations show a substantial decline in abundance in upcoming years, prey fish populations may rebound in a fashion reminiscent to what occurred in the late 1970s to mid-1980s. However, this scenario depends on substantial increases in harvest of lake trout, which seems unlikely given that levels of lake trout harvest have been flat or declining in many regions of Lake Superior since 2000.

Study Area

Publication type Report
Publication Subtype Other Report
Title Status and trends in the fish community of Lake Superior, 2012
Year Published 2012
Language English
Contributing office(s) Great Lakes Science Center
Description 13 p.
Conference Title Great Lakes Fishery Commission, Lake Superior Committee Meeting
Conference Location Duluth, MN
Conference Date March 20, 2013
Country Canada, United States
Other Geospatial Lake Superior
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details