Designing a Decision Support System for Harvest Management of Great Lakes Lake Whitefish in a Changing Climate

Abigail Lynch, William W. Taylor
Created: 10/20/2012 - Updated: 3/02/2020


This research project will make a significant contribution to understanding the biology and production dynamics of the Great Lakes' Lake Whitefish fishery and improve the ability of Great Lakes fishery managers to adapt their behaviors and regulations to be responsive to the impacts of climate change. Results from this research project are expected to provide the foundation for the development of an interactive modeling tool that will integrate Lake Whitefish biology and climate impacts to help decision makers coordinate conservation efforts and harvest strategies under varying climate regimes. Upon completion, this project will synthesize the current state of Lake Whitefish knowledge and provide an opportunity to assist decision makers allied with the fisheries to adaptively respond to climate change processes in the Great Lakes region.


Since 1980, populations of Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) have supported the most economically valuable commercial fishery in the upper Laurentian Great Lakes (Lakes Huron, Michigan, and Superior; annual catch value equals around US$16.6 million, averaged over years between 1994 and 2004) (Ebener et al. 2008). Climate change is likely to be a significant, long-term influence on the biological, economic, and social functioning of the Great Lakes fisheries ecosystems (Lynch et al. 2010). It is expected to impact the value of this fishery because the success of recruitment to the fishery has been linked with climatic influences including water temperature, wind speed, and ice cover (Lynch et al. 2010).   

Climate change is expected to impact the Great Lakes in a variety of ways including increases in surface lake water temperatures by as much as 6˚C, declines in average wind speed, and a substantial reduction in ice cover. These climate-related changes are projected to inhibit the success of recruitment to the Lake Whitefish fishery (Lynch et al. 2010). However, the warming trends associated with predicted climate change could increase suitable thermal habitat volume for Lake Whitefish because the species is expected to shift northwards and deeper in the water column to maintain optimal thermal habitat (Regier and Meisner 1990).   

This study will contribute to our understanding of the biology of Great Lakes’ fishes by integrating Lake Whitefish (Coregonus clupeaformis) ecology and population dynamics to project how the species will respond to changes in the physical environment due to climate change within the Laurentian Great Lakes. Though Lake Whitefish may experience some decreases in habitat space at the southern edge of their range, mortality and reduced scope for growth are not projected to be significant on a basin-wide scale because additional thermal habitat from currently nonproductive deep water regions for these fish should increase as the waters warm due to climate change. Thus, while distribution changes are expected in the future, overall Lake Whitefish production in the Great Lakes is expected to remain stable, if not increase. This research project is in the process of evaluating the ecological projections of the Lake Whitefish using spatially explicit production models that integrate the biological and physical environment and use advanced analytical tools for enhanced collaborative management of this important Great Lakes fishery. 

This research will also highlight the need for new approaches to manage the ecological, social, and economic impacts of climate change on the Lake Whitefish fishery. The Integrated Assessment approach (Michigan Sea Grant and Graham Environmental Sustainability Institute 2009) will be used to help develop sustainable management opportunities. Specifically, this research program will employ a novel application of the assessment approach to the Great Lakes Lake Whitefish fishery. Researchers plan to examine harvest management strategies in the context of climate change, and use this information to design a tool for spatial decision support in a temporal context. By integrating climate change impacts into the management process, decision support tools can address objectives from multiple stakeholders to help optimize the most adaptive management strategies. 

The research team anticipates that the decision support tools that are developed and evaluated will be particularly useful for increasing the ability of managers, policy makers, and stakeholders (commercial fishermen and recreationalists, among other user groups) to proactively adapt to the impacts climate change may pose to the Lake Whitefish fishery. By comparing scenarios of Lake Whitefish harvest management with climate projections over ecologically relevant timescales, this tool will use science and stakeholder objectives to assist decision-makers with making more informed choices that will hopefully increase the sustainability of this species for current and future generations.  

This research is funded by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources and the Great Lakes Integrated Sciences and Assessments (GLISA), which emphasizes the development of quantitative models to serve as the foundation for decision support tools. Collaborative relationships have also been formed with Michigan Sea Grant, local fisheries, and the Tribal Management Fishery (CORA-Chippewa Ottawa Research Authority).


The following is the research progress as of 2012:

1)      Determine which climatically driven biological factors to include in our model

Through discussions with researchers at the U.S. Geological Survey’s Great Lakes Science Center, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Great Lakes Environmental Research Laboratory (GLERL), Chippewa Ottawa Resource Authority, and Michigan State University (MSU), researchers have narrowed their focus to: 1) ice cover, 2) spring warming temperature, 3) wind speed (storms), 4) air temperature, and 5) water level. They will investigate which of these factors correlate to population dynamics (growth and survival) of Great Lakes Lake Whitefish based on current and historical assessment data for this species.

2)      Compile relevant data sets

With a time series dating back to the 1970s, the most comprehensive population dynamics information available for Great Lakes Lake Whitefish is a statistical catch-at-age model available through the Quantitative Fisheries Center at MSU. This will form the backbone of the population dynamics data for Lake Whitefish. Time series of environmental data for the Great Lakes basin is available through the Great Lakes GIS Project and GLERL.

3)      Acquire needed quantitative fishery modeling techniques

During the summer of 2011, researchers spent time with the Applied Environmental Decision Analysis Hub at the University of Queensland and at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation (CSIRO). This research experience helped provide an analytical foundation for determining the most responsive and appropriate modeling techniques for this project and decision support system. For more information on this research experience, please visit:    

4)      Create a preliminary model that links climate change to Lake Whitefish production and harvest dynamics

The researchers will create a preliminary model linking climate with Lake Whitefish population dynamics.

In the second year of this research, the researchers will perform sensitivity analyses on their model, design a user interface, evaluate its utility to decision makers, and refine the model for use as a decision support tool for Great Lakes Lake Whitefish harvest management. They intend to solicit public input on the tool’s refinement through collaborations with Great Lakes Sea Grant Extension Educators, tribal representatives, and commercial fish producers. In addition to producing the decision support system for Lake Whitefish harvest management decision makers, they anticipate multiple peer-reviewed publications and Extension communications publications resulting from this project. They hope that this tool can serve as a model system for other fisheries within the Great Lakes and beyond that will be impacted by global environmental processes such as climate change.

Upon completion, this project will synthesize the current state of Lake Whitefish knowledge and provide an opportunity to assist decision makers allied with the fisheries to adaptively respond to climate change processes in the Great Lakes region.Thisresearch will provide a significant contribution to addressing the needs and concerns of Lake Whitefish decision makers across the multitude of governance systems in the region.

Outcomes and Conclusions

Climate change impacts on Lake Whitefish production dynamics add additional ecological and social factors for consideration in designing and implementing sustainable management protocols for this species. Currently, Lake Whitefish management spans at least 35 Native American governments, eight U.S. states, and the province of Ontario, Canada. Most of the fisheries management in the Great Lakes occurs on a stock-by-stock basis without cross-jurisdictional cooperation. This type of management is not adequate for addressing large-scale environmental threats such as climate change; management must shift to more regional governance that encourages landscape-level conservation efforts. Such landscape approaches to fisheries management will help avoid fragmentation of fisheries and aquatic policies in each jurisdiction which historically, has generally resulted in the demise of fish populations and their associated fisheries. As Lake Whitefish move to find optimal habitat in response to changes in climate in the Great Lakes basin, the stock distributions and production dynamics will not remain in their current jurisdictional structure. Managers and society, like the fish themselves, must therefore adapt their strategies to the changing situation. As such, decision support tools will be a key feature of future adaptive management strategies for this fisheries ecosystem.

Additionally, as the public demands a greater voice in decisions over management of natural resources, it is essential that management incorporates stakeholders into the decision making process through Integrated Assessment approaches. In most cultures, without public input management measures have a low probability of acceptance. By seeking public input on the design of decision-support tools, these tools can better address objectives from multiple stakeholders on an ecosystem-level to help optimize the most effective management strategies. This program integrates the public into the process to make decisions culturally and socially acceptable while ensuring the resilience and sustainability of the fish populations and their ecosystems under management.


Submitted by CAKE user. Reviewed and edited by CAKE staff.


Lynch, A. & Taylor, W.W. (2012). Developing a Decision Support Tool for Great Lakes Lake Whitefish Harvest Management in a Changing Climate. Ed. Kirsten Feifel [Case study on a project of Michigan State University's Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability]. Retrieved from CAKE:… (Last updated October 2012)

Project Contact(s)

Position: University Distinguished Fellow

The Center for Systems Integration and Sustainability at Michigan State University integrates ecology with socioeconomics, demography and other disciplines for ecological sustainability from local, national to global scales.


Scale of Project
Multilateral / Transboundary
Sector Addressed
Target Climate Changes and Impacts
Fishery harvest
Climate Type
1-3 years
Type of Adaptation Action/Strategy
Natural Resource Management / Conservation
Incorporate climate change into harvest/take policies
Capacity Building
Conduct / Gather additional research, data, and products
Create/enhance resources and tools
Governance and Policy
Create new or enhance existing policies or regulations
Taxonomic Focus
Effort Stage
In progress