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Lake Ontario to maintain stocking levels in '18, Niagara River needs help

“Lake Ontario still offers a world class fishery for salmon and trout, producing the largest Chinook salmon in the Great Lakes. We want to keep it that way.”

Those were the words of Steven LaPan, Great Lakes Section Head with the Bureau of Fisheries for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation as he explained to everyone in attendance at Lockport’s Cooperative Extension 4-H Building last month. That was the reasoning behind DEC’s decision to maintain 2017 stocking levels in 2018 for Chinook salmon and lake trout, as well as all other salmon and trout species in this important Great Lake.

Earlier this year, stocking levels were reduced by 20 percent for Chinook salmon and lake trout as DEC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry looked for a compromise to off-set poor year classes of alewives from 2013 and 2014.

However, you can’t just look at the numbers of what is being stocked. Or not stocked. You have to look at the bigger picture when it comes to what is happening in the lake.

The primary concern is the reduced numbers of alewives from 2013 and 2014 that resulted from back-to-back severe winters.

As those two year classes of baitfish move through the system annually, the plan by the Lake Ontario Committee (DEC and OMNRF) was to reduce the amount of predation by stocking less salmon and lake trout – the two species that will have the largest impact on alewives both short and long term.

The resilient baitfishes have already started to make a comeback though. The 2016 hatch of alewives, collected as yearlings in the spring of 2017, are the highest ever recorded in the lake. It’s still not enough to offset the double whammy of 2013 and 2014, but it’s a start. And it was the primary reason why there wasn’t more of a stocking reduction proposed for 2018.

“You can’t have Pacific salmon without alewives,” said LaPan. “It is the most important food source for Chinook.”

Yes, an alewife is filet mignon to the mighty king of the lake. Salmon need them to grow to impressive sizes. The winning fish in the Fall Lake Ontario Counties Trout and Salmon Derby that ended on Labor Day was 39 pounds, 3 ounces. It was probably just 4 years old.

Steve LaPan, Great Lakes Unit Leader for DEC, explains how the Lake Ontario Committee arrived at the decision to maintain 2017 stocking levels in 2018. (Bill Hilts Jr.)

Another important factor is the amount of natural reproduction occurring in the lake, offsetting a percentage of the stocking reductions and certainly an important component when managing the lake. Based on recent studies, biologists figure that nearly 50 percent of all salmon in the lake right now are the result of natural reproduction. On the north shore of the lake, the Province of Ontario has rivers with strong runs of Pacific salmon that have never received stockings.

For New York, the number one tributary for natural reproduction is the Salmon River in Oswego County. It’s the same tributary that is home to the Salmon River Fish Hatchery, supplier of all the Pacific salmon for the Empire State in Lake Ontario. It is also the number one stocking location for Chinook salmon in the state and throughout the entire lake.

Combine that with a record high year for Salmon River natural reproduction in 2016, a third place ranking for 2015 and a fifth place in 2017, the future is bright, especially in the Salmon River Corridor. That’s where the majority of fish will return when they mature, leaving wherever they may have been hanging out. It’s an urge that they can’t fight.

There are other factors that need to be considered. Based on recent studies involving pen rearing projects along the south shore of the lake, biologists have determined that pen reared fish survive better than 2 to 1 than direct stocked salmon. Pen rearing projects were started back in 1998 as a means to increase the survival of stocked fish and also help with the imprinting process for the salmon. If a salmon thinks that the water it is stocked in is its “home,” it will return 3 or 4 years later when it matures to complete the circle of life.

So far, this process has been working … for the most part.

Timing is critical as to when the fish are received and when they are released 3 week later. They must arrive when the water temperatures are within a few degrees (less than 10 degrees) of the hatchery truck. The stream or river must also be much less than 60 degrees, the temperature at which the fish must be released from the pens. The fish must arrive small (usually 125 to 150 to the pound) so that the salmon can grow through the imprinting process and identify to a particular water body. These fish are normally released when they have nearly doubled in size.

One water body that has had it a bit more difficult is the Niagara River. Traditionally the river receives its fish later because of colder water coming down from Lake Erie in the spring. Late fish mean that they may have imprinted already to SRFH. Colder water means that they will grow slower when in the pens – if they make it. There were no fish in the pens in the Niagara River this year because of high water levels.

In the meantime, salmon numbers are down returning to the Niagara River. We did see a bit of an uptick earlier this fall, but warmer water temperatures may have played a role in how long fish remain in the system. We need a plan to make improvements and adjustments.

The Niagara County Fisheries Development Board has discussed everything from a holding-tank project to a habitat project encouraging natural reproduction. The Board is also asking for an experiment to take place involving Canadian-reared fish. By having fish planted from another hatchery, the Board feels that returns back to SRFH will no longer be an issue. While straying back to the hatchery from other stocking sites is only about 10 percent based on recent studies, that’s still more than what area fisheries leaders are willing to give up.

One final note is that the Lake Ontario salmon fishing was outstanding this year. When the open lake creel survey results come out in December, we will probably see the highest catch rates for salmon ever. All indications are pointing to an even better year in 2018. The same creel report will show fishing effort is at an all-time low. If that’s the case, we need to be prepared to fix the access points and do whatever is necessary to make sure launch ramps and marinas can handle higher water levels next year and beyond come spring.

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