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DEC to discuss Lake Ontario survey on alewives

Anglers who enjoy salmon and trout fishing in Lake Ontario are encouraged to attend a public meeting at 6:30 p.m. Nov. 13 at Cornell Cooperative Extension Niagara, 4487 Lake Ave., Lockport. The state’s Department of Environmental Conservation will announce the preliminary results of the 2019 Lake Ontario Spring Alewife Bottom Trawl Survey that was conducted by the U.S. Geological Survey, the DEC and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry.

According to lake researchers, the survey this past year was the most exhaustive forage base survey ever conducted on the lake with 252 bottom trawls in the main lake and embayments from 16 feet deep to 742 feet deep. Overall, the 252 trawls collected nearly 215,000 fish from 39 species. However, the focus of their efforts is a baitfish called alewife.

Alewives are the primary food source for salmonids in Lake Ontario, especially for the mighty king salmon. Kings will key in on alewives so it’s important to maintain a healthy population of these salmon snacks in the lake. That’s why salmon and trout originally were stocked in the lake, to help control an out-of-control alewife population. Now it appears those numbers are in check. In fact, the 2019 lakewide average biomass for adult alewives (age 2 and older) declined 29% this year compared to last year.

In addition, the lakewide biomass index for age 1 alewives this year declined from 2018. It was the lowest age 1 biomass observed since the lakewide approach assessing New York and Canadian waters. It’s important to note that age 1 alewives are a favorite food source for steelhead. Any size alewives can be consumed by lake trout. Other predators like brown trout, coho salmon and Atlantic salmon will eat alewives, too, but to a lesser extent. Their consumption is more based on convenience and availability.

Jan Hrdlicka of Germany caught this king salmon while fishing out of Wilson. Their favorite food is alewife, an important baitfish in Lake Ontario. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

Which takes us to the start of our current predicament. Back-to-back severe winters in 2013 and 2014 impacted the reproductive success for alewives. They are now adults, but limited in what they can produce due to diminished numbers, so lake managers have focused on reduced stocking, taking a more conservative approach.

For three years, king salmon and lake trout stockings have been cut back to help protect and manage the alewives. There is one piece of the equation that makes it a bit tricky. Lake managers admit that they really don’t know how many predator fish like salmon and trout are in the lake. They don’t know what kind of survival they are getting out of stocked fish supplied by the Salmon River Fish Hatchery, a facility that is continuing to deal with its own issues relative to things like water.

Managers don’t know how much natural reproduction they are getting in the lake from both sides of the border. An earlier study suggested that nearly half of the salmon in the lake are naturally reproduced, but that must fluctuate from year to year. Natural reproduction raises additional questions and concerns. There is no way of controlling it from year to year, there is no way to assess survival rates and, therefore, there is no way to figure out how many alewives are being consumed.

Further complicating matters, there is no way to determine how many fish are being caught by anglers. The DEC conducts an annual creel census that gives managers a snapshot of trends in the lake, catch rates, fish condition and overall usage. We know that the catch rates were all-time records for salmon in 2017 and 2018, with another good year on the lake in 2019 (results are pending). However, those catch rates do not break out if the salmon were 1, 2 or 3 years old. That would be important to know. The DEC is making a concerted effort to implement a tagging study of salmon in 2020, but it’s important to have OMNRF on board with it, too. This has not yet been finalized.

Capt. Jim Hanley of Angola shows off a lower Niagara River steelhead. These fish are managed for the tributaries in Lake Ontario. (Bill Hilts Jr./Buffalo News)

The overall catch of salmon and trout in the lake would be a key component to know. As one example, Capt. Matt Yablonsky of Wet Net Charters fished from April to September off the shores of Niagara County in 2019. It was a great year. However, census takers for the Open Lake Creel only checked him three times over the course of the creel assessment that runs from April 15 to Sept. 30. It’s safe to say his catch for the season was a bit higher than the 36 kings he checked in with the DEC. Of course, this is not your typical angling scenario, but there are full-time charter captains that operate out of Wilson, Olcott, Point Breeze and beyond. In the spring, charter captains from all around the lake (and from out of state) head to Wilson and Olcott to take advantage of the spring salmon fishery. How many fish are they catching?

Members of the Niagara County Fisheries Development Board like Capt. Vince Pierleoni of Thrillseeker Sportfishing insist that this phenomenon of the spring salmon fishery would help justify a stocking increase in the lake for these ports. Or, at the very least, a reallocation of stocking numbers to the Western Basin of the lake.

Which takes us back to the meeting and other issues that could come up in Lockport. New fishing regulations (http://www.dec.ny.gov/outdoor/115977.html) that are on the table for comment involve Lake Ontario and the corresponding tributaries. Stream representatives on a Lake Ontario Stakeholders Task Group have pushed hard to reduce the number of brown trout being caught in streams, dropping the limit from 3 to 1 fish per person per day. At the same time, they are asking that the steelhead minimum size limit in streams increase from 21 inches to 25 inches. The daily creel for steelhead in the streams is one fish per person per day.

In the lake, the proposal is to drop the daily limit of steelhead from 3 to 2 fish per person per day. Again, the Niagara County Fisheries Development Board at its October meeting thought that this proposal did not come at a good time. With a reduction in salmon stockings the last 3 years, we probably will see those effects starting in 2020. When salmon aren’t readily available, anglers will seek alternative fish species to catch such as steelhead, brown trout and lake trout. Keep in mind that based on input from the stakeholder task group, the DEC is now managing king salmon for the lake and steelhead for the streams/tributaries.

A final proposal affecting Lake Ontario and the lower Niagara River is to extend the lake trout season by one month. It would allow anglers to fish for lake trout starting Dec. 1 instead of Jan. 1. Not that controversial, but it appears that it’s all or none regarding these new fishing proposals. Anglers will have until Dec. 14 to comment. Should they pass, they would go into effect April 1, 2020.

See you at the meeting in Lockport. If you can’t make it, there will be an online/phone meeting on Nov. 14. Find the details at dec.ny.gov.

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