Lake Ontario chinook fishery looking solid again

Buffalo, N.Y. — Lake Ontario’s alewife numbers – a critical factor in growing large chinook salmon, the lake’s marquee fish – are looking good heading into 2014, according to DEC fisheries officials.

Trophy-sized king salmon have become commonplace on Lake Ontario in recent years, and the alewife population is a big reason for that.

“The larger fish speaks of an adequate alewife population,” says Steve LaPan, Great Lakes supervisor for DEC. “They’re the preferred food source of chinook salmon. Early indications of our forage base assessments show that adult populations are looking good going into 2014.”

While the alewife is tied to fish health and growth rates among chinooks, other food sources are also available for salmon. Those include smelt, a population on the rebound; gizzard shad, a relatively new food source that has also been increasing in numbers; and the round goby, an invasive species that has taken hold throughout the Great Lakes.

“We also stock a high-quality product into the lake, which gives those fish a better chance for success. Survival rates are improved through a number of management techniques, including barge stocking out in the lake and pen rearing projects for salmon and trout,” LaPan said.

Barge stocking in the lake moves the fish being planted out into the open water and away from predatory fish that can be found in the warming waters of spring when the salmon are stocked.

Barge stocking also helps get the newly stocked fish away from aerial predators such as cormorants. While New York controls cormorants through egg oiling, nest disturbances and even shooting in environmentally sensitive areas, the Province of Ontario does not. However, Canadian officials are recognizing that these birds can have a negative impact on a fishery and that they need to be controlled.

Pen rearing of fish was started back in 1998 when angling stakeholders expressed concerns over fish survival, imprinting and cormorant controls. That year, projects were launched at the Oak Orchard River in Orleans County and Oswego Harbor in Oswego County. Since that time, eight other pen rearing projects have become established by local sportsmen’s groups from the Niagara River to the Little Salmon River.

In addition, the Province of Ontario supports 10 net pen sites from St. Catharines to Prince Edward County, all of which also focus on improving survival rates and imprinting the fish in the waters in which they’re stocked. No more than half of a site’s stocking allotment can be put into the pens, unless previous success can be documented – such as at Oak Orchard/Point Breeze. Previous studies have proven the pen projects to be a huge success at The Oak.

Another study is currently under way in New York to evaluate the success of the pens, which will compare that to the success of direct stocks from the Salmon River Fish Hatchery.

“We want to make sure that pen fish are doing at least as well as the traditional stocking methods,” says Mike Connerton, the aquatic biologist charged with the mass marking of chinook salmon. In 2008, DEC purchased an automated fish-marking trailer capable of adipose fin clipping and applying coded wire tags to salmon and trout automatically at a high rate of speed and accuracy. Fish in the pens were marked from 2010 to 2013 and technicians will be evaluating returning fish to the pen sites this year.

Previous studies were initiated to determine the proportion of wild and hatchery chinook salmon in the Lake Ontario harvest and also to determine the degree of homing to the Salmon River Fish Hatchery.

“We’ve found the contribution of naturally reproduced salmon varies by age and year class,” Connerton said. “Our best guess is that 30 to 60 percent of the salmon in the lake are wild fish – on both the New York and Ontario sides of the lake. In the Salmon River, as many as 75 percent of all returning fish are wild kings. In other Eastern Basin tributaries, we estimate that 10 to 20 percent of the fish are wild. Out in the Western Basin of the lake, the wild fish numbers drop to 5 to 10 percent.”

The Salmon River, site of the Salmon River Fish Hatchery (it is actually located on Beaverdam Brook, a tributary to the Salmon River), now offers excellent natural reproduction – at least when the conditions are right.

It wasn’t always that way.

The Salmon River Fish Hatchery was put into operation back in 1980. DEC came to realize that natural reproduction was significant, increasingly so throughout the decade. In 1996, an agreement was reached with National Grid that involved maintaining more consistent water flows in the river, a critical component to more effective and consistent spawning in the system. Starting in early May, seine nets are used at four different sites to determine wild production. This process continues until the end of June.

DEC documented higher catches of young-of-the-year salmon when water flows were high in the fall and low in the spring.

“Fishermen will no longer be able to simply look at the fish to see if it was naturally produced,” says Jana Lantry, the fisheries biologist charged with running the lake creel census. “The last year for adipose fin clips in the lake for salmon was 2011, which means that only three-year-old fish could have a fin clip in 2014. The fish will have to be tested with a wand to see if the head is holding a coded wire tag.”

The Salmon River Fish Hatchery produces roughly 1.76 million chinook salmon every year for the New York waters of Lake Ontario. Of that total, 350,000 fish are imprinted to the Salmon River to ensure an adequate return of these precious salmon to the main hatchery. Biologists have found that 85 percent of those fish actually do return to Altmar.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources (OMNR) produces about 600,000 chinook salmon for planting in Canadian waters out of the Normandale Fish Culture Station located near Simcoe, Ontario. The total stocking for Lake Ontario, divided up by surface area of the Great Lake, is 2.3 million chinook salmon.

There are no immediate plans to continue with the tagging/marking program for salmon this year.

“That’s a mistake,” says Joe Yaeger, president of the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association. “We feel very strongly that the DEC should continue to use the tagging trailer for chinook salmon going forward.

We have seen valuable information from it already by identifying the wild kings from those reared in the hatchery. We as fishermen now can provide information on the quality and quantity of these wild kings versus hatchery-raised kings. We’re also able to see a very distinct migration pattern of the wild kings back to the Salmon River from mid-July on, resulting in a significant decrease in our western basin king fishery for the remainder of the year.”

Yaeger said anglers “put a significant amount of time and dollars into the chinook pen rearing projects. The tagging trailer was supposed to provide us with the data to determine whether all of our effort is making a positive impact on the fishery. The DEC for years has preached to us that every year is different and that management decisions should be made on a large sampling of data over time. Trends over time is what we need to see similar to what is used to track the DEC boat and stream creel census and baitfish trends that the DEC publishes every year.”

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