New York's fishable waters of Lake Erie are in a good state, according to speakers Wednesday from the Lake Erie Fisheries Station who gave presentations about Lake Erie's Sportfisheries program.
David Greene, moderator of the New York Sea Grant program presented at the Dunkirk Sheraton, opened with an overview of Lake Erie and the observation that the defeat of the environmental bond issue could delay access and marina improvements two to three years. But Greene said the access effort was "down but not out."
The Lake Erie reports were given by three biologists from the Dunkirk Unit.
William Culligan, head of the unit, began by noting the significance of the 42-foot research vessel Argo in improved fisheries reporting. Since its acquisition in 1986, the Argo has added trawling surveys to its surveys taken with trap and gill nets. Trawling allows biologists to examine young-of-the-year species and the growth of smaller (forage) fish.
In 1990, for example, the Argo logged 67 days of research. Also, two smaller craft are used to study Lake Erie fishing conditions. The combined efforts of the five-man staff of biologists aboard three craft add considerable fishery data on the New York section of Lake Erie.
Culligan said figures for 1988 indicated Lake Erie saw 945,500 days of use, yet only 6 percent of the fishermen were from out of state -- approximately one-third the number of non-residents (17 percent) who travel to Lake Ontario.
Don Einhouse, an aquatic biologist specializing in warm-water fisheries, said the lake produces more freshwater fish than all the other Great Lakes combined.
Einhouse illustrated the vast disparity in walleye hatches on Lake Erie. After a nearly fishless hatch in 1983, the '84-class hatch in the eastern basin included the greatest number of fish in recent times. Despite a weak '82-class in Western New York waters, excessive numbers from a good western basin walleye hatch have been taken in New York State waters.
Einhouse observed that the best conditions for walleye hatching seem to occur during years that come after a severe winter, followed by a late spring and a fast-warming spring season. When these three weather conditions combine, that year's class seems to thrive.
He concluded with some good news for walleye fishermen near Buffalo. The '88-class was a good hatch and has shown up well in 1990 surveys, indicating that a good number of legal-sized (15-inch and greater) fish can be found along the Erie shoreline when walleye season reopens.
Floyd Cornelius, an aquatic biologist specializing in cold-water fisheries, outlined some remarkable aspects of the lake trout recovery in the deep, cold, well-oxygenated waters of the eastern basin.
Lake trout, the only salmonid native to Lake Erie, have been in drastic decline since the introduction of agricultural fertilizers, industrial petrochemicals and the use of the steam engine after the Civil War. By the turn of the century, lakers were beginning to disappear. Sea lamprey have since furthered the decline.
The lake trout restocking program is now in its 11th year, with trout taken from many sources. A strain of Lake Superior trout has been used every year, but the Finger Lakes strain (from Seneca Lake) shows the greatest resistance to sea lamprey attacks. Cornelius pointed out that the complete recovery stocking program will probably take another 20 years.
Since the widespread lampreycide treatment of Lake Erie in 1986, lamprey wounding has been greatly reduced and the number of age-5 fish has increased almost 15 times. Five-year-old lakers generally measure in the high 20-inch range and are at a good reproductive age.
Cornelius, however, tries to discourage heavy harvesting. The Lake Erie limit is set at one fish per angler. He encourages "swishing" and the "head-first plunge" when releasing these deep-water fish. That is, once the hook has been removed, gently hold the fish in the current and swish water through the gills until the fish shows movement. Then lift the fish tail, and release so the fish enters the water head-first, straight toward the bottom. This release reduces "hooking mortality."
At present, 200,000 fingerling lakers are stocked yearly in Erie, but Cornelius is proposing an increase to 400,000 to the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
Future cold-water prospects are bright, with the Seaforellen strain (a brown trout that can attain a weight of 40 pounds) and the Skamania strain (a steelhead trout that tolerates warm water) coming to Lake Erie. Cornelius will also bring back the diary cooperation program for 1991.
On hold is the stocking of coho salmon. Biologists are looking at alternative stockings possibilities in place of the coho, which has met with little positive response from fishermen. Somehow, Chinook salmon, steelhead, rainbow and brown trout all seem to generate much more angler interest.
Don Einhouse concluded the Lake Erie presentation with an emphasis on forage (bait fish) concerns. He said forage is "more important than abundant adult/predator fishes."
Lake Erie is blessed with six major forage species, rainbow smelt being dominant in the eastern basin and gizzard shad dominating the western basin.