Sunday, February 5th, 2023
Sunday, February 5th, 2023

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Muskie decline sparks concern

Buffalo, N.Y. – DEC fisheries biologists are concerned with a
dramatic decrease in the number of muskellunge being caught from
the Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor on Lake Erie and feel that it
may be a number of factors causing the decline.

Muskie anglers on those historical muskie havens are seeing the
decline, including Scott McKee, president of the Niagara Musky
Association (NMA), an organization founded in 1994 to promote the
survival of the muskie population on the Niagara River and Lake
Erie.

McKee fears muskie populations are dangerously low, especially
in Buffalo Harbor.

Proof of the decline is easily seen in the catch records from
1994 to 2007 by NMA members, according to McKee.

Back in 1997, there were 631 muskies reportedly caught by NMA
members – 474 in the Niagara River and another 157 from Buffalo
Harbor.

That number is considerably higher than in 2007 when only 57
muskies were caught in the Niagara River and another 17 were pulled
from Buffalo Harbor for a total of 71.

‘We at DEC are very sensitive to the fact that the muskellunge
fisheries in the Buffalo Harbor and Upper Niagara River have
declined and that opportunities to catch both small and large
trophy muskellunge here in the Buffalo area have diminished
greatly,” said DEC Region 9 aquatic biologist Michael Wilkinson,
“We are very concerned about what is happening.”

Wilkinson said that there are a number of factors that may be
responsible for the muskie decline. Those include declines in
aquatic productivity associated with dreissenid mussel colonization
and related environmental changes; changes in habitat conditions
(especially declines in submergent plant density); disease such as
viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS); cormorant predation on young
muskies; as well as angler-related mortality, particularly in
Buffalo Harbor.

DEC suspects that a decline in aquatic productivity in Lake
Erie, which feeds the ecosystem in Buffalo Harbor and the Niagara
River, has been a significant contributing factor to the decline,
especially to young muskellunge production.

Before the extensive colonization of Lake Erie by zebra and
quagga mussels, algae levels in Lake Erie’s Eastern Basin waters
declined substantially due to their filter feeding nature. The
water became much clearer, largely due to less algae, according to
Wilkinson. With less algae, there’s less food available for fuel
the aquatic ecosystem.

“Our limited assessments of young-of-year (YOY) abundance
suggests there have been substantial declines in numbers of YOY
muskellunge produced in the Upper Niagara from the early 1990s to
the present. Corresponding increases in water clarity have probably
changed behavior of larger muskellunge, however we’re not sure how
that might relate to adult abundance or growth,” Wilkinson
said.

DEC is also seeing large-scale changes in the amount of
submerged aquatic vegetation in some areas of the Upper
Niagara.

“We are observing reduced density of aquatic vegetation,
particularly wild celery (Vallisneria), which is critically
important to young muskellunge during their first growing season.
Some of the vegetation changes are likely due to scouring as a
result of boat wakes, but there appears to be other as yet
unexplained factors at work. The degradation of these weedbeds is
particularly troubling due to their value to a large number of fish
species and for waterfowl,” Wilkinson said.

Although DEC hasn’t observed an unusual number of dead muskies
in those bodies of water, VHS could also be a factor in the
population decline. VHS was first confirmed in New York waters in
May 2006 when it was linked to the deaths of several dozen
muskellunge in Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

“We also suspect that VHS has been a factor in the local
decline, because it has been confirmed as a major source of
muskellunge mortality in Great Lakes waters both upstream and
downstream of the Niagara system,” Wilkinson said.

One large female muskellunge was found dead in the spring of
2007 in Buffalo Harbor.

“It was tested and found negative for VHS, so we have not yet
found a smoking gun for VHS induced mortality in local
muskellunge,” he said.

DEC also feels that a dramatic increase in both breeding and
migratory cormorants in Buffalo Harbor and the Niagara River over
the past decade may be a contributing factor as well.

Angler-induced mortality, either by direct harvest of muskies
and/or through delayed post-release mortality, may have been a
contributing factor in the decline in Buffalo Harbor, according to
Wilkinson.

“As word about the quality of the fishery spread and angling
pressure increased during the mid to late 1990s, fishing pressure
in this relatively small and accessible area of Lake Erie was
intense,” said Wilkinson. “With this much angling pressure and lots
of handling of big fish, some post-release mortality undoubtedly
occurred. However, the overriding sense is that the muskellunge
decline was more closely linked to environmental and habitat
factors.”

Wilkinson said DEC is attempting to determine exactly why the
decline has occurred and is working on approaches to improve the
fishing in the Niagara and Buffalo Harbor. DEC is cooperating with
researchers at SUNY-ESF and has ramped up its own efforts to study
the situation. A proposal to begin stocking muskies, particularly
in Buffalo Harbor, has been proposed to DEC, and that is being
considered.

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