From Catastrophe to Recovery: Stories of Fishery Management Success

Back from the Brink: Sustainable Management of the Lake Erie Walleye Fishery

Christopher S. Vandergoot, Matthew D. Faust, James T. Francis, Donald W. Einhouse, Richard Drouin, Charles Murray, and Roger L. Knight


Abstract.—This chapter describes management actions implemented after a large-scale population decline of the Walleye Sander vitreus population in Lake Erie, one of the Laurentian Great Lakes in North America. Intensive fishery exploitation during the 1950s combined with declining water quality conditions collapsed the Walleye stock during the early 1960s. The fishery persisted at low levels until 1970 when the fishery was closed (1970–1972) due to elevated mercury concentrations in Walleye tissue. Lake Erie fishery managers at the time recognized the need for a coordinated, multi-agency approach to protect this ecologically, economically, and socially important resource. The harvest ban was lifted in 1973 when mercury levels dropped below advisory levels. In 1976, an interagency management framework was established, which relied on a coordinated, science-based management philosophy consisting of estimating safe harvest levels, performing applied research, and conducting annual population assessments. The population rebounded during the 1980s in response to improving environmental conditions, regulated harvest, and a series of strong recruitment events. Declines in harvest and population size were again observed during the late 1990s and mid-2000s, likely due to variation in natural processes controlling recruitment, and fishery managers enacted harvest practices during this period to promote long-term sustainability. Today, Lake Erie Walleyes support one of the largest self-sustaining freshwater fisheries in North America. Throughout the years, Lake Erie managers have iteratively adopted changes to their population assessment model and altered harvest policies to avoid future fishery and population collapses. More than 40 years later, Lake Erie continues to support commercial and recreational fisheries lake wide. Lessons learned from the stock recovery and subsequent coordinated management for fishery sustainability include the importance of conducting routine population assessments, using science-based research to address key uncertainties, adopting modern stock assessment approaches, incorporating stakeholder input into the quota setting process, and addressing environmental concerns collaboratively at the lake level.