Lake Ontario is a spectacular fishery for a wide variety of species, but especially for salmon and trout.
Last year, the Chinook salmon catch rate (number of fish caught per angler hour) was at an all-time high for the second year in a row. The overall fishing quality based on the catch rate of the lake’s four most sought after species – Chinook and Coho salmon, brown trout and steelhead – set a record in 2018 with 5.3 salmon and trout per boat trip. Will that continue in 2019?
More than 50 anglers from Western New York sat through 2 1/2 hours of in-depth research and policy discussions, questions and answers, and an extensive PowerPoint presentation as they listened to the fisheries experts from the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation and its appropriate Bureau of Fisheries staff at the annual State of Lake Ontario held at Cornell Cooperative Extension on March 7 in Lockport.
The state of the lake meeting traditionally focuses on the open lake fishery. For this session, there was quite a bit of information for stream fishermen, from new suggestions for fishing regulations to the status of stocking initiatives and pen rearing projects (including more steelhead pens).
Part of the reason for the shift in meeting material was because of the implementation of a Lake Ontario management focus group, a collection of 16 stakeholders from the four lake regions (Regions 6-9), two from the streams and two from the lake.
“The intent was simple,” Bureau of Fisheries Chief Steve Hurst said. “Helping DEC fisheries managers gain a greater perspective on desired outcomes associated with the Lake Ontario salmonid fishery and determine which areas of consensus can be achieved from open lake and tributary anglers for inclusive management of the fisheries resource.”
“The way it’s supposed to work, focus group members would have a shared understanding of desired fisheries management outcomes. DEC will have a much better understanding for the desires of anglers and where potential improvements can be made to both the open lake and the tributary fisheries.”
Using a key process method that utilized an outcome/action chart, the group focused on a desired fisheries outcome. Next, they developed potential solutions to achieve the outcomes. Along the way, they identified trade-offs and consequences. Finally, the group deliberated and selected the most feasible options.
“Regulations are not the only answer,” Hurst said. “And they are not the best answer in some situations. They are only one tool in the tool box.”
When members of the focus group asked for better staging of Chinook salmon off the New York stocking sites, three potential options were agreed upon after much discussion and will be implemented. The number of Chinook salmon will be increased in the pens. The hatchery will strive for earlier delivery of Chinook to the pens and premium food will be utilized for the pen rearing projects. Taking those steps could help with an improvement of staging kings. It’s worth a try.
Four ideas for fishing regulation changes came out of the focus group meetings. They weren’t really proposals, but DEC wanted to float them by the angling community before the state makes them formal proposals. They are:
- Increase the minimum size limit for steelhead in Lake Ontario tributaries from 21 to 25 inches. It was hoped that this would help improve the size of returning fish.
- Lower the daily limit of brown trout from three to one in Lake Ontario tributaries only. This also would give anglers more fish to catch in streams.
- Lower the daily limit of steelhead in Lake Ontario from three to two fish. This could help with returning numbers to streams and hopefully increase the size.
- Extend the lower Niagara River and Lake Ontario lake trout season by one month, opening Dec. 1, the same as the Province of Ontario. The current season opens Jan. 1 in New York. It gives fishermen an extra month without impacting spawning season. Prime spawning is October and November.
It appears that there was good support to turn the ideas into official proposals. Should they become a reality, they would not go into effect until April 1, 2020.
One important process milestone that was emphasized during the meeting was that rainbow trout/steelhead would be managed for tributary fisheries. This was a consensus reached through the focus group.
Improved survival of the fish being stocked is a win-win for open lake and tributary anglers. There was a heavy emphasis on pen rearing projects this year, which has proven to increase salmon survival by a 2 to 1 ratio. A total of $100,000 in funding from the Natural Resources Damages Settlement remaining from the Sportfishing Restoration and Spending Plan became available this year to assist with the pen projects.
In addition to the Chinook salmon outside of the Salmon River being put into pens this year and the increased emphasis on steelhead (adding five pens), there was another experiment in Niagara County using pens to hold brown trout for a few days. The idea was to allow the fish to become acclimated to local waters and then be towed into the lake to be stocked at night. It was thought this could help improve brown trout survival.
Overall, pen rearing operating procedures have been updated, the communications process is more fine-tuned, logistics have been improved, responsibilities have been clarified and stocking schedules are in place. Premium fish food is now being used, resulting in improved growth, condition and, ultimately, survival.
The forage base assessment was presented by Brian Weidel with U.S. Geological Survey. He didn’t offer much good news on the alewife bottom trawl survey that is conducted in April by his agency, DEC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forests. They are now surveying New York and Ontario waters in the lake, giving them a better picture on baitfish abundance in the lake.
Once again, biologists found more adults in Canadian waters than U.S. waters. Adult abundance of alewives increased in 2018, primarily due to the big year class of 2016 that became adults in 2018.
However, the age one fish in 2018, which was the 2017 class, was below average (third lowest over the past 22 years in U.S. waters). It also appeared that the big 2016 class was knocked back considerably based on last spring’s trawl numbers. The losses of 2013 and 2014 classes of alewives, blamed on the severe winters of 2013-14 and 2014-15, continue to leave a significant gap in the adult population of these baitfish, the preferred forage for Chinook salmon. This is why 2019 Chinook salmon stocking was cut back 20 percent from last year’s planting (there still was more than 1 million Chinook salmon planted).
The Lake Ontario annual report for 2018 should be out in April. When it becomes available, you can find it at www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/40068.html under program summary and annual reports. Email questions or comments to the DEC at firstname.lastname@example.org regarding Lake Ontario.