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New Great Lakes regulations proposals draw mixed reviews

With the help of feedback from a Lake Ontario Fisheries Management Focus Group, five Great Lakes fisheries proposals are up for public discussion with the hope of making changes by April 1, 2020.

The group consisted of four delegates from each DEC Region along the lake.

Some of the most intense discussions involved rainbow trout/steelhead in Lake Ontario and its tributaries. In the battle to protect more fish, stream proponents pushed for lessened limits and increased minimum size. The current proposal would achieve half that, lessening the limit from three to two fish as part of an overall three-fish daily creel per person that also includes brown trout, Chinook salmon and Coho salmon.

The minimum size for rainbow trout/steelhead would remain at 21 inches in the lake.

“We should eliminate the 21-inch minimum size in the lake,” says Capt. Vince Pierleoni of Newfane, one of the Region 9 delegates. “In the summer when water temperatures are warmer and we fight a fish to the boat, often that fish isn’t going to recover. If it’s under 21 inches long, we must release it. We may be harming more fish than we need to.”

Pierleoni suggested some alternatives to help improve the numbers of returning steelhead. One was to place more steelhead into pens to help protect them from avian predators, such as cormorants and other predator fish such as pike, walleye and lake trout. Biologists should also look at why domestic rainbows seem to do better than Washington strain steelhead as far as performance.

In the tributaries, the daily limit would remain at one fish per person, but the minimum size would increase from 21 inches to 25 inches if another proposal were adopted. This would not include the Niagara River, because it is not considered a tributary to the lake but part of the lake proper.

Another important tributary consideration involves brown trout. Stream proponents pushed hard for reduced daily limits for these fish, dropping the daily limit from three fish to one fish per day. Again, this did not include the Niagara River. The rationale was to prolong quality brown trout fishing for a longer period because of excessive harvesting.

This is not the first time that this proposal has been discussed. Time will tell whether it will pass the public opinion litmus test.

Another regulation change for consideration involves lake trout and the lower Niagara River/Lake Ontario. Currently, lake trout season is closed from Oct. 1 to Dec. 31 in the lower river and Lake Ontario in New York. However, there was a push to try to allow for a catch-and-release season during that three-month time frame because the fish are available to both boat and shore anglers, mixed in with the other species of fish that offer open seasons in the lower river.

For those of you who are unaware, lake trout migrate up the lower Niagara River to spawn. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service documented successful spawning in 2011, a huge discovery. Because lake trout recovery is part of a federal restoration effort, the DEC took a more conservative approach and closed the season down during spawning.

To conform with the Canadian neighbors who share the same resource, the state opted to propose a one-month extension to the current season, allowing for the season to open Dec. 1 instead of Jan. 1, the same as the Province of Ontario. It’s a compromise that allows for an extra month of fishing. However, if DEC truly wants to conform with regulations with a country they co-manage the lake with, they should also look at daily limits.

For lake trout in Lake Ontario and the lower Niagara River, the daily limit for lake trout is three fish per person on the Canadian side and it’s two fish in New York. We could go on down the list for just about every other species. Brown trout is five fish per person in Canada, New York is three in the lake. Walleye is four fish, New York’s limit is three. Pacific salmon is five in Canada, three in New York. Some of those species are part of an aggregate limit, some are not. Everyone should all be on the same page.

“I think it’s an important step to try to align New York regulations with the Province of Ontario and the new lake trout proposal is a step in the right direction,” said Capt. Frank Campbell, also a member of the Region 9 Focus Group.

On the flip side, Canada’s steelhead limit is two fish for Lake Ontario. They also close several of the prime spawning streams from April 1 to the Friday before the first Saturday in May, and I don’t think you would ever see that here. The steelhead season is open all year in New York for the Great Lakes. The main spawning stream for natural reproduction in New York is the Salmon River in Oswego County.

“A two-fish steelhead limit is not going to affect me with my business,” Campbell said. “I’m seeing more and more people practicing catch-and-release anyway. It should help to extend the length of having good numbers of fish in the river to target for customers.”

One Lake Erie tributary regulations proposal was also offered up, applying to Spooner Creek and the North Branch of Clear Creek in Erie County. Fishing in those creeks is closed from Jan. 1 through March 31. Should the new proposal be approved, anglers would be able to fish for any species that have an open season between those dates.

When these streams were originally closed, the intent was to protect adult steelhead and promote natural reproduction. However, recent studies have identified juvenile habitat as the limited factor in successful spawning.

“These are some really good outcomes from the Lake Ontario Fisheries Management Focus Group,” says Scott Feltrinelli of Webster, a licensed guide (Ontario Fly Outfitters) and a member of the Region 9 delegation. “All of these ideas are very forward thinking, to enhance the angling experience for all sport fishermen on the lake and in the tributaries. It’s important to get the fishing community behind these ideas and support them wholeheartedly.”

The DEC wants to hear from you on any or all of these proposals. Click here to respond directly. You can also email regulations.fish@dec.ny.gov. Include in the subject line “Possible Great Lakes Fishing Regulations Changes,” with the number of the regulations proposal you are commenting on (such as 2020_GL_01). The number for each proposal can be found at the link. Send a separate email for each proposal that you would like to make comment on.

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