Lake Erie's walleye are thriving, but climate change makes their future unclear
Port Clinton, a small town on the shore of Lake Erie, calls itself the walleye capital of the world.
On New Year's Eve, it doesn’t host a ball drop. It lowers a 600-pound fiberglass walleye to the ground.
At times in the summer, that icon, named Wylie the Walleye, is stationed in the middle of the town’s main drag, where passers-by can take selfies in front of its wide open mouth.
But it’s not the only walleye that attracts tourists to the region.
“The fishing industry over nine counties, we provide to the tourism industry about a billion dollars a year,” said Peg Van Vleet, better known as Captain Peg. “And that's ‘b’ on the billion.”
Captain Peg is one of many fishing boat captains in Ohio’s nine Lake Erie-adjacent counties. She’s chartered a boat on the lake for 25 years, taking out tourists to fish. This summer, her business is booming, and that has a lot to do with walleye.
“Most of them that we're seeing right now are 18 to 20 inches,” she said, “so a couple-pound fish, pretty nice eaters.”
Walleye in the present
Last year, the number of walleye harvested per hour on Lake Erie was the third highest on record.
And scientists say this year’s on track to be pretty good too; they predict Lake Erie’s adult walleye population will be among the highest it's been in the past 30 years.
For businesses like Captain Peg’s, this is great news — nearly 90% of charter trips targeted walleye in 2020, according to a recent report on the industry.
As the fish flourishes, so do those businesses. Between 2010 and 2020, revenue for Ohio’s Lake Erie charter industry increased by more than 50%.
Walleye in the past
But back in 2010, walleye weren’t doing so well.
Travis Hartman is the Lake Erie fisheries program administrator for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources’ Division of Wildlife. Every year, his team tries to estimate how many walleye are born in the lake.
“Through the ‘90s and the early 2000s, we had poor hatches,” Hartman said. “Some of the year classes were less than 5 million fish from a ‘poor year,’ where a good year might have 30 or 40 million or more from one year.”
Hartman says the size of a hatch comes down to environmental conditions — things like the severity of winter, the timing of spring and the amount of plankton in the lake for baby walleye to eat.
“In the past I would have told you hard winters give us the best hatches,” Hartman said. “It seems like a lot of ice cover and late ice break up gives us the best opportunity for a big year class. But these past four or five years have broken that mold.”
Instead, Hartman says scientists now think the size of a walleye hatch has more to do with water levels.
“If you think about it, we need nursery habitat for larval fish and potentially higher water gives us more shallow water nursery habitat,” he said.
Water levels naturally cycle over the years. There are periods of high water, then low water, and that seems to correspond with the size of the walleye hatches, and therefore how many mature walleye are in the lake for years to come.
Walleye can live up to 25 years, so a single good hatch could have ramifications for the species’ population years down the line. Because there have been so many good hatches recently, fish researchers like Hartman expect walleye fishing in Lake Erie to be good for at least another decade.
But beyond that, it’s hard to guess how the fish will fare, because new variables are coming into play.
Walleye in the future
“There's a thousand factors influencing whether walleye do well or not,” said Chris Winslow, another Lake Erie fish researcher and the director of the Ohio Sea Grant College program. “But then we're laying climate change over the top.”
As the climate changes, Winslow says Lake Erie water levels are going up and down faster and faster.
“My heart aches for our salty, shark-ridden coastal states, but they're preparing for unidirectional water levels,” he said. “Ours is going to be up, down, up, down, up, down. I would argue it's much harder to adapt and have coastal resilience and stable ecosystems when it fluctuates rather than a unidirectional move.”
At the same time, Lake Erie is warming. Summer water surface temperatures are up 4.5 degrees Fahrenheit since the late ‘70s, Winslow said, and ice cover on the lakes is changing drastically from year to year too.
Combined, these factors introduce a new level of uncertainty about the future of walleye.
Scientists don’t know what all these changing variables will mean for the fish in the long run — they could prove remarkably resilient or the species could flounder like it did a decade ago.
But whatever happens to walleye will make big waves in Port Clinton, where the fish isn’t just a part of the ecosystem or even the economy: it’s an identity.