NEWFANE -- State officials were fishing for help this weekend when they traveled to Eighteenmile Creek to harvest Chinook salmon eggs in an effort to boost a severely depleted supply needed to stock Lake Ontario next year.
An extreme shortfall could affect sport fishing in years to come and those who rely on it to enhance the local economy, including many communities in Niagara County.
The state-operated Salmon River Fish Hatchery in Altmar, on the east shore of Lake Ontario in Oswego County, is well over 1 million eggs short for its stocking program, said William Culligan, Great Lakes Section Supervisor for the state Department of Environmental Conservation, based in Dunkirk.
"We blame it on the severe drought we've had up there," Culligan said. "We haven't been able to collect the eggs we need for stocking next year. We need close to 3 million eggs, and we are short well over a million. We came to Eighteenmile Creek because there are so many fish here. It looked like our best bet."
Sport fishing in Niagara County is a $20 million-a-year industry, said Bill Hilts, Jr., outdoor sports specialist with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corp.
"And the No. 1 fish caught in Lake Ontario is the Chinook salmon," Hilts said, according to a DEC study.
Seven DEC workers from throughout the state and several volunteers were busy early Friday and Saturday harvesting eggs. Curt Meddaugh, of Pendleton, a member of the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association, was among the volunteers.
"The economic impact is tremendous," Meddaugh said. "If we don't stock, there won't be any fish in three years," when salmon would start returning to the streams where they were stocked.
"Stocking the fisheries is for the whole lake, and it affects the United States and Canada," Meddaugh said. "This is the big enchilada -- the big prize fish that people put the most money into to catch, from renting charters to room and board. It's a tremendous economic impact, and that's why we have the full-court press here now to get these eggs."
Culligan said workers were using two methods to harvest eggs.
"We're using an electro-shock boat in the river which stuns [but doesn't kill] the fish and allows us to pick them up with a net," he said. "And we're also asking fishermen up at the Burt dam to let us have the eggs from the fish they've caught or let us have the fish. So far, they've been very cooperative."
From mid-September to the end of November, close to 10,000 paid visitors frequent Fishermen's Park in Burt.
"The fish are so thick right now, you can walk on them," Newfane Supervisor Timothy Horanburg said.
"There are license plates from Pennsylvania, Ohio, New England," he said. "The parking lot is packed. If it weren't for the fishermen, there would be nobody over there."
Culligan said the eggs harvested would be taken back to the Salmon River Fish Hatchery, where they will hatch next June.
"When they're 3 inches long, we'll use them to stock a number of places along Lake Ontario," he said.
"This is our first attempt here," he said. "This is a brand new experience."