Charter fishing draws tourists to Saugatuck

Lake Michigan charter fishing is a big attraction in the small community of Saugatuck, but changes to the lake’s ecosystem make for an uncertain future.

Big lake fishing requires a seaworthy boat and specialized tackle. Charter fishing businesses provide tourists with a safe and enjoyable experience that does not require owning expensive equipment. | Michigan Sea Grant

Big lake fishing requires a seaworthy boat and specialized tackle. Charter fishing businesses provide tourists with a safe and enjoyable experience that does not require owning expensive equipment. | Michigan Sea Grant

The charter fishing industry has long been recognized as an important component of the tourism portfolio in coastal communities. According to a national study Michigan ranks as the second most popular destination for out-of-state anglers. Only Florida draws more fishing tourists. Michigan also ranks third in the nation in terms of overall angler spending.

At the local level, this translates to economic impacts that can be calculated using tools developed by Michigan Sea Grant, Michigan State University Extension, MSU’s Center for Economic Analysis, and Dr. Chi-Ok Oh of Chonnam National University. For example, Michigan Department of Natural Resources data show that 484 charter fishing trips were taken in Saugatuck in 2013 and 2,249 anglers fished aboard charter boats. Roughly 74 percent of customers who travel to fish on a charter boat list charter fishing as the primary reason for their trip. These are the tourists who come for the fishing but stay in hotels, dine at restaurants, and pick up supplies as local stores while they are in town.

For Saugatuck, this equated to $625,555 in gross sales during the 2013 fishing season. Charter angler spending generated 12,894 employment hours and $268,972 in personal income last year in Saugatuck. About 24 percent of the economic impact was realized in the hospitality industry while restaurants gained 3,042 employment hours due to charter fishing activity.

While the economic impact of charter fishing in the Saugatuck area held steady from 2012 to 2013, the future of the Lake Michigan fishery and related tourism is uncertain. Around Lake Michigan, catch rates dropped in 2013 and the decrease in Chinook salmon was of particular concern.

Charter anglers in Saugatuck saw a similar trend as the number of Chinook salmon caught fell from 4,462 in 2012 to 1,661 in 2013. Fortunately, fishing for lake trout did much to fill in the gap and the lake trout catch rose from 612 in 2012 to 2,073 in 2013.

In Saugatuck, the decline of Chinook salmon catch and increase in lake trout has some anglers concerned for the future. Lake Michigan Chinook salmon catches have varied somewhat from year to year in the past, but in 2004 Lake Huron salmon catches crashed. Although fishing for lake trout and other species remains good to excellent in Lake Huron, the charter industry and related tourism declined by 50 percent with the loss of Chinook salmon.

While Lake Michigan does not appear to be facing a similar collapse of salmon fishing, there does appear to be a more gradual decline in Chinook salmon catch rates and a transition to a greater variety of species in charter catches. What this means for tourism in Saugatuck and other Lake Michigan ports remains to be seen.

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