DEC eyes sauger return to New York

Albany — A plan to establish self-sustaining populations of sauger, a walleye-type fish popular in several states, has been unveiled by the DEC.

Public comments on the plan can be made through Sept. 15.

The proposal calls for establishing sauger populations in the Allegheny River watershed in western New York; determining the suitability of Lake Erie’s eastern basin for sauger restoration; determining the existing sauger population and habitat in Lake Champlain.

“They’re actually an extremely rare fish, and we’re thinking we probably need to jumpstart them with a stocking program in the Allegheny system,” DEC fisheries bureau chief Phil Hulbert said earlier this year. “They’re a popular fish in other states.”

The proposal calls for establishing and maintaining self-sustaining sauger populations “in all suitable waters of native watersheds by 2030.”

DEC Commissioner Joe Martens called sauger “a fascinating species uniquely adapted to thrive in large turbid rivers and lakes. They once were prominent in the Great Lakes, St. Lawrence River and Lake Champlain, but have declined to the point where they are now one of New York’s most imperiled fish species. This plan will start the process of restoring sauger to its native range in New York waters.”

Sauger are North American members of the true perch family, Percidae, and closely resemble walleye in both appearance and function.

That in itself could lead to challenges in establishing sauger, since anglers may unknowingly keep sauger, believing them to be walleye.

Hulbert said an outreach and education effort would be a critical component of the plan to help anglers identify the differences between sauger and walleye.

Norm St. Pierre, owner of Norm’s Bait & Tackle in Crown Point (Essex County), said he’s confident Lake Champlain anglers would welcome a sauger fishery if one could be established.

“They were around in the late ’60s and early ’70s,” he said. “They’re a little smaller than a walleye – about 21⁄2 or 3 pounds, maybe up to 4 pounds. And they’re good eating. I’ve only heard of one being caught 10 or 12 years ago.”

St. Pierre said Lake Champlain’s walleye fishery crashed when DEC halted its stocking program many years ago. The walleyes were also overfished, he said, thanks to a 10-fish daily limit.

DEC’s plan says sauger still “presumably” occur in Lake Champlain, but only one fish has been collected during surveys over the last 15 years.

“However, small numbers of sauger are regularly documented in the lake’s outlet, the Richelieu River, and further downstream in the St. Lawrence River, both in Quebec, Canada,” the plan read.

“Also, there is evidence that sauger are utilizing the recently constructed Vianney-Legendre fishway at the St. Ours Dam on the Richelieu River and moving toward northern Lake Champlain.”

The plan calls for surveys of Champlain’s northern and southern ends to determine habitat suitability and the feasibility of a stocking program.

A fishable sauger population currently exists in the Allegheny River below the Kinzua Dam in Pennsylvania. Conewango Creek, a tributary that enters the Allegheny River below the dam, was recently made accessible to sauger with the removal of a lowhead dam at the mouth. Sauger can now move unobstructed into this portion of the Allegheny watershed in New York.

“The Allegheny River population is, however, blocked from entering the New York portion of the river due to the Kinzua Dam,” the plan read. As a result, that would necessitate a stocking program, to establish a population in the reservoir and river section above the dam.

In Lake Erie, sauger were historically most abundant in the western basin, but were numerous enough in the eastern basin to support a commercial fishery in the early 20th century. The lake’s sauger population crashed in the 1950s and is now extirpated.

The Ohio Department of Natural Resources is currently developing a restoration program for sauger in western Lake Erie, which “could have implications for the eastern basin if sauger become established and migrate east,” DEC officials said.

Sauger are similar to walleye, but lack the dark spot found on the bottom of the walleye’s first dorsal fin and the white edge on the lower caudal lobe. In addition, sauger have three to four saddle-shaped dark brown blotches on light brown to olive-colored sides and distinct black spots on the first dorsal fin.

“A knowledgeable angler can tell the difference (between a walleye and a sauger),” St. Pierre said.

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