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New tool shows health of Lake Erie fish species

Go fish.

It’s been a great few years for it on Lake Erie.

That’s what aquatic scientists from the state Department of Environmental Conservation told more than 100 local anglers at the Southtowns Walleye Club Thursday evening at New York Sea Grant’s 23rd annual State of Lake Erie meeting.

Although Lake Erie continues to face myriad issues such as toxic algae, microplastics pollution, sewage overflows and threats from invasive species, scientists say many of the fish species in the lake are thriving.

“It’s a good time to be a walleye fisherman,” said Jason Robinson, an aquatic biologist from the DEC’s Dunkirk Lake Erie Fisheries Unit.

Robinson revealed early details of the DEC’s new acoustic telemetry study that is using electronic technology to track the movements of walleye in the eastern basin of Lake Erie between Erie, Pa., and Buffalo.

What it showed is that fish from as far away as western Ohio are swimming all the way to Buffalo.

Of 310 tagged fish from Ohio, the telemetry data showed 29 approached Lake Erie’s waters off Western New York – about 9 percent.

That’s more significant than it sounds.

“Nine percent of the western (walleye) population is two million fish,” Robinson said. “It’s not a small number at all.”

Of those tracked, 27 of the 29 made it to the New York-Pennsylvania border, 16 swam as far as Dunkirk. Nine more made it to Sturgeon Point and five all the way to Buffalo.

Besides the numbers, biologists also are trying to learn about the timing of the migration and found it is happening even later in the season than ever imagined.

“What really surprised us is there were just as many western basin fish here in October as there were in July and June,” Robinson said. “This is the kind of information we were looking for.”

Technological advances like this one are improving fisheries management, officials said.

Acoustic telemetry also is being used to track the resurgence of lake sturgeon in Lake Erie and the Niagara River corridor by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

The data on the walleye is still preliminary, but scientists anticipate even more discoveries are coming.

“I think in the next three years, we’re going to have some really exciting results from this study,” Robinson said.

DEC scientists also are seeking anglers for help in continuing to study Lake Erie walleye, with $100 rewards offered for those who snag and return fish with a special orange tag. For more information, contact the Dunkirk fisheries office at 366-0228.

Another warm-water fish highlighted, yellow perch, recorded record high levels in 2012, 2013 and 2014 but dipped a little last year.

Still, yellow perch recorded its fifth highest catch, with an average length of 11.5 inches. That was the longest average on record, Robinson said.

Jim Markham, another aquatic biologist from the Dunkirk fisheries office, pointed out that walleye and perch might have thrived from good levels of phosphorus in the lake’s eastern basin.

Unlike the western basin, where uncontrolled phosphorus levels spawn vast toxic algal blooms that can cover hundreds of miles of the lake, they seem more balanced here.

Markham doesn’t expect toxic blooms to affect New York’s shoreline.

“We have not seen them in our end of the lake,” Markham said. “And, it’s probably doubtful we’ll see them unless Lake Erie gets really bad.”