The case of the missing Niagara River salmon
It is a case for Sherlock Holmes.
As the month of November nears, anglers in the Niagara River are still wondering what happened to all the salmon that were supposed to be returning for the final run of their lives. During a normal year the local charter fishing fleet, as well as the legion of shore fishermen, will start to pursue the mighty king by the second or third week of September. The salmon action concludes by the end of October. This year the fishing started on time, but the catching didn’t. It was one of the toughest salmon years anglers have ever seen. In fact, some charter captains cancelled their seasons while others opted to fish for bass and walleye.
Imagine a charter boat loaded with good sticks going four days without a bite? That can be frustrating. Imagine a dozen boats fishing Devil’s Hole and only six fish being caught for the entire day? If a boat caught two fish, they were the heroes on the river by the first week of October. After a banner year on the lake (again), what could have happened to the might king?
Since most fish that would be returning to the river would be three-year-old chinook salmon, let’s look at what happened in 2016. For starters, the Niagara River received its full stocking target number of salmon – 75,000 kings in the pens operated at the time by the Niagara River Anglers Association (NRAA), and 128,000 direct-stock kings, all from the Salmon River Fish Hatchery. The Niagara River is normally one of the final locations to receive fish in the pens and for stocking due to colder water coming down from Lake Erie, thanks to the ice boom.
While some anglers speculate that receiving the fish so late could cause the salmon to be imprinted to the Salmon River, studies performed by the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) a few years ago have shown that fewer than 10 percent of stockers could return back to Altmar, where the hatchery is located on the Salmon River in Oswego County.
Unfortunately, there is no longer a fin clipping study in place to determine salmon migration patterns and to determine whether the salmon is stocked or wild. They will not be clipped in 2020 either. The Canadians would not agree to a fin clipping study so it would have been a waste of time if every salmon stocked in the lake on any give year was not clipped – all or none.
The last time a study took place (mass markings in 2010, 2011 and 2013), every salmon stocked in the lake was fin clipped, in both New York and in Ontario. It substantiated that wild fish are an important contribution to the salmon fishery in the lake. Approximately 50 percent of all salmon in the lake were naturally reproduced, according to the study. It also verified the importance of salmon pen-rearing projects along the lake versus direct plants from the hatchery. Survival rates were better than 2 to 1 when comparing the pens to a hatchery truck stocking directly into the water.
Of course, there are some unknowns out there when it comes to stockings. Predation from birds like cormorants is becoming an increasing problem and many wonder if the predation from larger predator fish (like walleyes, bass, pike and muskies) might also pose a bigger threat than what anyone realizes.
There are water issues, too. In 2017, Lake Ontario experienced its first-ever record high water disaster on the lake. Water was so high in the Niagara River the NRAA could not operate a pen-rearing project for salmon. It was also the first year of a 21.9 percent stocking cut for the river and along the lake, allowing for Wilson to get back into the salmon stocking game with its first plant of 10,000 Chinook (in a pen) in 25 years. Because they were in a pen, the county had to give up 20,000 direct-stocked kings. Some salmon will return to their perceived “home” as two-year olds.
Other pen-rearing sites also had issues with the high water in 2017 and had to deal with a late delivery of the salmon from the hatchery. The delay in receiving fish causes stream temperatures to elevate, making it difficult to hold the fish for any length of time.
Getting back to the fall salmon run, warm water could be a factor in some of the other streams to the east and runs could still happen there, too. However, warm water never stopped the salmon from entering the Niagara River in the past. It just ended their life cycle a little quicker. A chinook or king salmon is a Pacific salmon. They spawn and then die. That’s the circle of life for them, if they don’t get caught first.
That’s a good segue into another school of thought, that the anglers in the lake are catching a bulk of the fish being stocked in the Niagara River area. During the spring and summer, salmon congregate around the Niagara Bar, as well as off Wilson and Olcott – not just fish that are stocked here. However, when it’s time to return home, those fish will hightail it back to their stocking site or where it they were naturally reproduced. Most likely, that’s the Salmon River, where the main fish hatchery is and the biggest producer for natural reproduction in New York.
The area around the Niagara River is popular, especially in the spring. It owns the salmon division of the Lake Ontario Counties Trout and Salmon Spring Derby. Charter captains from around the lake will set up shop in Wilson and Olcott. Recreational boats take advantage of the spring salmon action, too. It all makes for a big fish-catching party. There are definitely more fish caught than what DEC realizes through its lake creel census conducted every year.
Winds have also been blamed, with strong east winds pushing salmon out of their staging areas in September. If so, where did they go?
Some point the finger at not using the Caledonia Fish Hatchery for stocking any more. At the very least, the water is different from the Salmon River.
Maybe it’s time to look at reallocating stocking numbers along the south shore of the lake. In Ontario, the Ministry of Natural Resources took a long look at usage on the north shore and decided that they would move some stockings into high-traffic fishing areas from low-traffic sites. It’s something that’s been talked about here in New York at stakeholder meetings.
Will anyone solve the case of the missing salmon? We will have to wait and see.