Smallmouth bass survey around Washington Island

A DNR fisheries biologist measures a smallmouth bass near Washington Island on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. (WLUK/Eric Peterson)
A DNR fisheries biologist measures a smallmouth bass near Washington Island on Wednesday, May 21, 2014. (WLUK/Eric Peterson)

WASHINGTON ISLAND - How healthy is the smallmouth bass population in the state? Wildlife officials are trying to find out.

The efforts have reached Washington Island in Door County, but it's a project that also had a nearby dredging project on hold.

For the past week, Department of Natural Resources crews have been checking nets in Detroit Harbor.

"Now, we're getting closer to spawn, we're starting to see a mixture of some smaller fish in there. The catch rates have been going up and down with water temperatures," said Scott Hansen, DNR fisheries biologist.

Fish get measured and the tail is clipped. Hansen says the smallmouth are full of valuable information.

"Specifically, we can look at the age structure, the size structure of the fish, we're taking scale samples, how old these fish are, what the age distribution is. That will tell us how recruitment has been over the last ten years or so," said Hansen.

Hansen says fish in the area are getting bigger.

"We've seen an improvement in some of the age classes of about three inches," said Hansen.

But the fish live in the same harbor as a major dredging operation.

Cranes were quiet after the DNR temporarily halted the $5.2 million project.

"Sediment can cause problems if it becomes suspended, and moves onto the spawning grounds, and adheres to the eggs and could potentially kill the eggs or kill the larval fish," said David Boyarski, DNR area fisheries supervisor.

Officials from the town of Washington, the DNR, and the dredging company agreed to increase water monitoring at the site, and would stop dredging if sediment got too close to potential spawning areas.

"It's in the best interest of everybody to wrap this thing up, timely and effective and a cost-effective measure, but on the other hand we need to save our ecosystem as well," said Town of Washington Chairman Joel Gunnlaugsson.

And as cranes will share the harbor with the bass, biologists say they will continue to focus on the fish.

"So far, I would say I like what I see," said Hansen.

DNR crews plan to spend another week on the island. They say they will return to the area in July to assess the nesting progress of the fish.