“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember you have within you the strength, the patience and the passion to reach for the stars … to change the world.” -- Harriet Tubman
The Niagara Musky Association (NMA) has always been a group of dreamers. In an effort that combines patience with passion, they have set a course for the future by utilizing state-of-the-art acoustic telemetry equipment in an attempt to learn more about the habits of the mighty muskellunge.
“Last year, the NMA took advantage of present-day acoustic technology by applying for and receiving a $52,000 grant from the Habitat Enhancement and Restoration Fund (HERF) to determine migration patterns of the muskellunge,” said John Jarosz, Conservation Director with NMA.
“Make no mistake about it, it’s not a grant to follow muskies ‘live.’ It’s not a grant to know their locations for anglers to catch. It’s not a grant for the present,” Jarosz said. “It’s a grant to build spawning and nursery habitat whose results will help the fishery well into the future. It’s ensuring that this wild, urban musky fishery remains viable and self-sustaining.”
It’s a dream the group has been talking about for years, and it is finally seeing the initial phase implemented … thanks to some help from their friends with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) and the U.S. Coast Guard (USCG).
The Niagara Musky Association has always been in the habit of looking ahead – way ahead – right from its beginnings 23 years ago. With leaders like Tony Scime and Jon MacSwan (to name a few) heading a small group of diehard musky fishermen, they established themselves as caretakers of the musky resource moving forward. The club would promote effective catch and release, lobby for changes in the regulations, promote beneficial habitat projects and run a club that promoted the open sharing of fishery data, all to ensure a fishery for the future.
“Back then, and still to many now, the philosophy of open sharing remains revolutionary,” Jarosz said. “We’ve truly made an impact on our part of the world in the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor so far. This is the next step.”
DEC Region 9 fisheries biologist Justin Brewer was involved with assisting in the project. Utilizing the same technology that the FWS and DEC is using with Great Lakes lake sturgeon (and DEC is implementing with walleye in Lake Erie in conjunction with other states and the Province of Ontario), electro-fishing techniques were employed to first secure 10 viable musky samples from the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor.
“We weren’t sure how well we would do so we set aside two weeks to get the job done,” said Brewer, who normally works out of the Allegany office. “Musky are not an easy fish to catch. Our first fish was an impressive 51-1/2 inch, 42-pound female. We caught all of our fish in one week and we caught fish every single day. Our biggest was a 51-1/2 inch, 47-pound female laden with eggs. Our smallest was a 39-inch male. We ended up with five males and five females.”
Once a fish was caught, there was still much more work to be done – including surgically implanting an acoustic tag that transmits a specific signal for that fish. Six acoustic receivers were also placed in strategic locations in the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor. These would complement groups of other receivers that are anchored to the bottom, already in place for a sturgeon project underway, as well as a huge walleye effort in the entire lake.
“The equipment is similar to the E-Z Pass system that is used on the Thruway,” Jarosz said. “When a tagged musky passes near a receiver, the receiver detects the transmitter’s unique identifying number as well as the date, time, water temperature and depth of the passing. The whole system is part of the Great Lakes Acoustic Telemetry Observation System (GLATOS), the same system being used by the DEC in their tracking of walleye migration in Lake Erie and FWS in their sturgeon study. All those and about 40 other research projects use equipment that operates on the same frequency, and so, if a muskellunge migrates to Presque Isle in Pennsylvania, it will be detected. In the fall, all of the data is downloaded, sorted and studied by the DEC and NMA.”
Two years of musky data should help answer the important questions on prime spawning habitat, its viability and whether it can be expanded. Does the area need to be protected? Are the eggs hatching? The study will be able to answer these questions.
As part of the grant, Gomez and Sullivan, Engineers, PC will do the follow-up engineering of the habitat work.
“That work is expected to start in spring 2019 and will include a bathymetric contour map, a map of the vegetation and substrates, and, most importantly, a conceptual drawing of the habitat restoration plan that needs to be done," Jarosz said. "With drawings in hand, the NMA will pursue another grant to work the habitat as needed.”
The Great Lakes muskellunge season opens Saturday, June 17. Much of this work was performed last month, but with the success of the electro-fishing technique, NMA didn’t want to take any chances on people trying to target these impressive fish early. It’s illegal to target muskellunge out of season. Incidentally, NMA is also implementing a floy tagging study in an effort to determine a population estimate of these fish in the system. This will also go on for two years. Let’s hope NMA keeps on dreaming … and turning those dreams into reality for future generations to enjoy.
“Adopt the pace of nature; her secret is patience.” - Ralph Waldo Emerson