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Lake Ontario faces challenges but fishing is great and open for business

Simply put, Lake Ontario is open for business.

That’s the message that needs to be conveyed to the masses that normally arrive each spring, summer and fall to take advantage of the lake’s outstanding salmon and trout fishing. Out of state and locally, we need to be on the same page. And this year is another banner year for kings.

Once the rumor mill gets started, though, combined with the media reports of a State of Emergency and flood warnings, many people may think the lake is off limits. Some people will say the launch ramps are closed to get the fake news flowing. The closer you get to the lake, the more businesses are impacted. Some restaurants in Wilson are off as much as 80 percent this year. Yes, business is down overall, but it doesn’t have to be.

“Fishing was absolutely crazy today,” said Capt. Alan Sauerland of Newfane who operates the Instigator boat out of Wilson. “We caught roughly 25 king salmon on Monday, with 4 or 5 in the 20-pound class. A lot of fish were in the teens as far as weight. We had two tripleheaders and many doubleheaders. All were released to fight another day.”

That’s the way it’s been.

At last week’s Resiliency and Economic Development Initiative in Rochester, spearheaded by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, many of the state’s leaders conceded that this may be the new normal as far as lake levels thanks to Plan 2014. After setting another lake level record this month (a second record-high level in three years), it’s time to change our way of doing business, unless we can change, suspend, renegotiate, rescind or revoke Plan 2014.

When Plan 2014 was first being pushed by the International Joint Commission and environmental groups, it came with the promise of restoring plant diversity and habitat for fish and wildlife by allowing more natural variability in water levels. They were calling for higher water levels and lower water levels than what we were used to, and what the infrastructure was based on. When it was all said and done, though, very few people or groups supported the plan. The six counties along the Southern Shore of Lake Ontario opposed it, along with nearly every fishing group.

Fishing is big business along the Lake Ontario shoreline. (Photo by Bill Hilts, Jr.)

In Niagara County, sportfishing is big business. A 2010 study from Niagara University showed that the annual economic impact to be in the neighborhood of $30 million. Neighboring Orleans County was estimated at $12 million annually. At least until Plan 2014 was implemented in December of 2016.

The following year saw a record high water level in Lake Ontario, with marinas being shut down and boat launches being closed. It was the lowest number of fishing trips recorded by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation on the lake through its annual creel census of fishermen. Despite the high water issues, if you could get on the lake, the fishing was very good. In fact, that year was a record for salmon catch rates.

Despite the good fishing, the perception was that Lake Ontario was closed. Charters were cancelled, rooms were cancelled, and people didn’t bring their boats. We will never know how many people could have been turned on by the Lake Ontario fishing when the angling action was at the top of its game. Or how much revenue was lost.

When 2018 arrived, we did not have the same high-water issues and many anglers returned to enjoy another record year for salmon, as well as salmon and trout combined. There was an increase in registrations for some of the bigger fishing derbies and tournaments. Charter captains and the lakeshore communities were able to somewhat recover.

It was déjà vu when the lake level skyrocketed to a record high this year. As it was in 2017, the perception was that the lake and the lakeshore communities are closed. Charter fishing trips are down, restaurant business if off, tackle shops struggle with sales and, overall, tourism is trying to regain momentum. And, like 2017, the salmon fishing is excellent.

This time around, the facilities are better prepared. Most of the marinas in Niagara County are open. Nearly all the launch ramps in county are open, too. You need two people to launch a boat and you might have to wear boots to keep your feet from getting wet, but the rewards are great when you get out and take advantage of the world class fishing on our doorstep.

The Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott has added pallets to the docks to keep things dry for people launching their boats. (Photo by Bill Hilts, Jr.)

If you look hard enough, there are launch ramps that are handling the high-water levels just fine because they were built right. The Town of Wilson boat launch in the west branch of 12 Mile Creek does not have any issues with the main launch. However, it’s for boats 20 feet or less. The Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott is fully functional. Marina director Scott Scheffler and company were able to add wooden pallets to some of the docks to keep feet dry and boats launching. To the east, many launch ramps are closed due to the high water.

At the Governor’s REDI Conference, one of the biggest issues that came up time and again was the plea for help with marketing and letting people know that Lake Ontario is open for business. REDI is a massive undertaking. Up to $300 million was put on the table to be a catalyst for creating changes to the shoreline and infrastructure that will protect what we have, not just rebuild what was destroyed. It needs to be made more resilient. It’s not going to happen overnight, and communities and businesses need the help now.

One good start would be to try and do something with Plan 2014. At the Niagara County Legislature meeting in Lockport on Tuesday, there was a resolution passed asking that President Donald Trump immediately renegotiate Plan 2014 with its Canadian partners, immediately suspend Plan 2014 and re-implement previous regulatory rules.

In the meantime, drive down to the Lake Ontario shoreline and see the beauty of the resource for yourself. Get on the water and wet a line. If you don’t want to get your feet wet, go with a charter captain. You will see that the lake truly is open for business, as well as the businesses that rely upon it as a main attraction.

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