Tag Archives: Lake Erie

Fishing for steelhead in new (old) places

Today’s blog was co-written by Catherine Gatenby and Betsy Trometer, fish biologists at Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. Visit them on Facebook

Chautauqua Creek emerges out of the slate bedrock and gravel of western New York and flows 15 miles north and west, emptying into Lake Erie about 50 miles south of Buffalo, New York. It’s among one of the top steelhead fisheries in the entire state because of the amount of public access, with anglers catching as many as 1 to 2 steelhead per hour. New York presently maintains 8.5 miles of public fishing easements on Chautauqua Creek, including 1.3 miles of catch and release with artificial lures just below the Westfield Water Works Dam. The steelhead fishery is supported extensively by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC)  stocking programs in Lake Erie tributaries.

Steelhead trout from Lake Erie tributary stream. Credit: Jacob Cochran

Steelhead trout from Lake Erie tributary stream. Credit: Jacob Cochran

Historically, Chautauqua Creek had always been perfect habitat for trout. Soldier, lawyer, diplomat, and writer, Mr. Albion W. Tourgee wrote of the Chautauqua in 1887’s Button’s Inn: “From source to mouth there was hardly a hundred yards of quiet water …Heaven grant that the foot of the despoiler may be long delayed, and that the trout which hide in its cool waters may long continue…”

Decades ago, two dams were constructed on the Chautauqua approximately five miles upstream from its mouth at Lake Erie. These dams impeded water flow and limited fish passage and fishing opportunities. Fish and anglers were limited to  5-mile reach between the dams and Lake Erie.

The uppermost dam, the  Westfield Water Works Dam, serves to pool water routed to a reservoir used for the public by the village of Westfield. The lower dam no longer serves a purpose. Chautauqua Creek also had been experiencing erosion downstream of a railroad bridge culvert 2 miles upstream from the mouth, which created a drop and another impassable barrier to both migratory and resident fishes like smallmouth bass and white sucker.

But it’s the steelhead trout that bring the anglers to Chautauqua Creek.

Steelhead trout caught in a tributary stream to Lake Erie. Credit:Jacob Cochran

Steelhead trout caught in a tributary stream to Lake Erie. Credit:Jacob Cochran

Recently, Chautauqua Creek was targeted by state and federal partners, including the Chautauqua Soil and Water Conservation District and Trout Unlimited, for habitat restoration projects that would reduce erosion and boost the recreational fisheries. Funding from the Great Lakes Restoration Initiative and the Great Lakes Fish Habitat Partnership was provided to open more than 10 miles of high quality spawning and nursery habitat for migratory and resident fishes, and increase the amount of angler access to this important recreational fishery. In the summers of 2015 and 2016, rock riffles were repaired at the upper dam, and new rock riffles were constructed at the lower dam and below the railroad bridge to allow fish passage. After 3 years, the rock riffles are still in place, having withstood high river flows, due to judicious pinning of boulders which kept them stable.

James Markham, fisheries biologist for the NYSDEC’s Lake Erie Unit, reported steelhead had made it to prime habitat upstream of the Westfield Water Works Dam in the fall of 2015 and 2016 . “In fact,” Jim says “last year (2017), was a great year with smallmouth and white suckers reaching previously inaccessible prime spawning habitat above the railroad bridge, and anglers catching steelhead above the dams up into the headwaters of the stream. And we are seeing lots of natural reproduction (by steelhead) up in the watershed, along with out migration of the young fish from the upper part of the creek to Lake Erie. We are fully expecting to see natural reproduction of smallmouth and white suckers in the coming years too as a result of opening a mile of good spawning habitat.”

Finally, Markham says, “by leveraging all the support and talents of our partners, we were able to accomplish a lot more than any of us could have on our own”.

We hope that Mr. Tourgee would be pleased to see us working together to restore Chautauqua Creek’s riffles and opening miles of its cool waters so trout may long continue for anglers in New York and the Great Lakes.

Below are some before and after images from the project

 

Secrets of the Lower Great Lakes: The search for lake sturgeon

Catherine Gatenby

Catherine Gatenby is a fish biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Lake sturgeon nearly disappeared from the Great Lakes 100 years ago. Discovering the secrets of their biology to help recover the species is a group effort. Today, Catherine Gatenby takes us on a journey to the Niagara River, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario with fish biologists who are diving deep into sturgeon waters to find answers we need for helping this ancient species of fish.

Out on Lake Erie in search of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: USFWS

Out on Lake Erie in search of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: USFWS

While the quest for lost treasure chests of information about lake sturgeon might not be considered fodder for an Indiana Jones movie, the discoveries may be more valuable than gold to fish biologists. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and Northeast Fishery Center along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, the U. S. Geological Services and Shedd Aquarium are working together to recover lake sturgeon.

Their pursuit to uncover the secrets of this ancient fish doesn’t include excursions into dark caverns or midnight camel rides across the desert. However, it does involve dives into the blue waters of the Niagara River and breathtaking adventures on the expansive Great Lakes.  It takes a dedicated team of scientists, engineers, boat captains and barge operators to restore lake sturgeon and its habitat

Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and the Northeast Fishery Center lake sturgeon restoration crew out on Lake Ontario. Photo credit: USFWS

Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and Northeast Fishery Center lake sturgeon restoration crew out on Lake Ontario. Photo credit: USFWS

Far less is known about the lake sturgeon in lakes Erie and Ontario than in the other Great Lakes. Questions we ask ourselves as we embark on this adventure include: How many sturgeon live here? Where do lake sturgeon spend their lives? Where is the best habitat for spawning and feeding? What do they eat? How many adults are reproducing? And the ultimate question we aim to answer is: How long before we can consider the population healthy and self-sustaining in the Great Lakes? 

“We collect valuable information by tagging wild fish. We learn about their movement, diets, hormone levels and genetic diversity to help us answer these questions,” says Dr. Dimitry Gorsky, of the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office. 

Fish biologists with the Northeast Fishery Center and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, IL implant a tag that will transmit valuable information on migratory behaviors of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: USFWS

Fish biologists with the Northeast Fishery Center and the Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, Illinois, implant a tag that will transmit valuable information on migratory behaviors of lake sturgeon. Photo credit: Shedd Aquarium

Biologists are observing an increase in lake sturgeon numbers in many remnant populations across the Great Lakes. “Over the past four years, we have captured and uniquely marked over 600 individual fish. We used to catch between 15 to 20 fish per year just 10 years ago,” reports Dr. Gorsky, “but we are steadily capturing more lake sturgeon, more than 100 fish each year. This summer, we have already captured nearly 200 fish and are on our way to a record year.”  

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Northeast Fishery Center biologist releases a wild lake sturgeon after collecting vital information that will help evaluate overall health of the population. Photo credit: USFWS

The age distribution of lake sturgeon are eerily similar among different populations as those observed in the lower Great Lakes; most are less than 25 years old, suggesting that this ongoing recovery is in response to large-scale actions that took place many years ago. The first of which may be the Clean Water Act of 1972, which set the table for preventing and removing pollution from our waters. Also in the 1970s, some U.S. states along with the Province of Ontario, Canada, enacted fishing closures on lake sturgeon to protect what fish were remaining, according to Gorsky.

Figure 1. Age distribution of lake sturgeon - oldest fish born in 1967 (1)

For species that delay reproduction, such as the the lake sturgeon which doesn’t reproduce until at least 10 to 15 years of age, it would naturally take decades to see an increase in population growth, assuming the causes for the decline have been abated,” says Dr. John Sweka of the Northeast Fishery Center. 

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologists study the gentle and ancient lake sturgeon to help with it’s recovery. Photo credit: USFWS

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service fisheries biologists study the gentle and ancient lake sturgeon to help with its recovery. Photo credit: USFWS

The combination of setting harvest limits and improvements in water and habitat quality is creating a favorable environment for lake sturgeon recovery. “It’s amazing that actions begun so long ago continue to be linked to improvements in our Great Lakes,” remarked Dr. Gorsky. “Perhaps the greatest secret lake sturgeon may have revealed to us is that recovery takes time.” 

Lake sturgeon in the Niagara River below Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

Lake sturgeon in the Niagara River. Photo credit: USFWS

Read more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s high-tech tracking of lake sturgeon in the Buffalo Harbor, NY.

Read more about the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office and the Northeast Fishery Center

A man stands with waders and a net in front of an Allegheny National Fish Hatchery fish truck

Taking stock in the future of lake trout

Today we hear from Larry Miller, hatchery manager at Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, PA. Larry grew up on the shores of Lake Erie in Dunkirk, New York. Originally attending college for nursing, Larry was hired for a summer internship helping graduate students with fish behavior studies on Lake Erie because he knew a lot about the lake. He got hooked on fish and concentrated his studies on ecology, limnology and fisheries. Now Larry has come full circle; Dunkirk is one of the sites where lake trout produced at his hatchery will be released this spring.

Two men stock fish into Lake Erie using a large hose attached to a truck.

The first  Lake Erie stocking of yearling lake trout from Allegheny National Fish Hatchery since 2005 began April 8, 2013 in Ohio. Credit: John Hageman.

Growing up, Lake Erie was literally at the end of my street. My friends and I would walk down to the end of the road with fishing pole in hand and catch as many sheephead (freshwater drum) as we could reel in before our arms fell off. The one who caught the most was the winner (30+). I remember stories of the giant lake trout that once inhabited Lake Erie and I always wanted to catch a record class one someday.

The lake trout was one of the most important native fish species in Lakes Ontario and Erie before European colonization. Uncontrolled commercial fishing and overharvesting decimated lake trout populations so that by the 1950s the last native lake trout was netted by commercial fishermen in Lake Ontario and by the mid 1960s, lake trout had disappeared from Lake Erie, too.

a man in a yellow jacket and waders stands in water with a hose coming off a truck

Samuel Breene (foreground), U.S. Representative Mike Kelly ‘s Director of Outreach, helped stock fish at North East, Pennsylvania. Credit: Larry Miller/USFWS.

Click here to see a video of Lake Erie stocking at North East Pennsylvania.

Although commercial fishing was no longer a factor, bringing back lake trout to the lower Great Lakes faced other challenges, such as pollution.

Wright Park Beach was about a 10 minute walk from my house, but when I was young we rarely went swimming there because it was covered with dead stinky brownish rotting algae and fish. Ironically the city actually built a pool right next to the lake so kids would have a place to swim! With the banning of phosphates in detergents and better sewage treatment the lake water quality improved. We started swimming at the beach, I became a life guard, yellow perch and walleye fishing got better and the fisheries agencies started talking about restoring other native species like lake trout.

The multi-agency, international Great Lakes Fishery Commission was formed to maintain sustainable fisheries in the Great Lakes. Today the commission has action plans in place to address sea lamprey predation, habitat limitations, insufficient adult spawner numbers and limited hatchery stocking. These include an enhanced hatchery and stocking program for lake trout.

Fish flop on rollers with water splashing

Yearling lake trout in the de-watering tower before being loaded into stocking truck. Credit: Larry Miller/USFWS

Allegheny National Fish Hatchery has the lead for lake trout hatchery and stocking in Lakes Ontario and Erie. In 2005 the hatchery was shut down due to a fish disease. When the hatchery was about to reopen in 2011, I was asked if I’d be interested in being the manager.

At the time I was the Susquehanna River Coordinator down in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania and was looking for a change from the one-person office environment working mainly with people from other agencies. My wife, son, dog and I visited the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery/Warren area on a camping trip and went up to Lake Erie. After a flood of memories and finding we liked the area we decided to make the move. I was happy when the hatchery reopened and I became the manager.

A man stands with waders and a net in front of an Allegheny National Fish Hatchery fish truck

” I always wanted to go catch a record class lake trout.  I’m hoping to get that chance on Lake Erie and now have the privilege to work to make that a reality,” says Larry Miller. Credit: USFWS

In 2011 we resumed lake trout production with more than a million fertilized eggs received from other state and federal partner hatcheries. From those eggs we produced 900,000 fall fingerling fish by October 2012 and stocked 120,000 in each lake. We held the remaining 660,000 at the hatchery to raise them to the spring yearling size that we are currently stocking.

We began stocking yearlings this year on April 8 in Lake Erie at Sandusky, Ohio and will continue through the end of May with final stocking in Lake Ontario at Olcott, NY. Our program receives substantial support from the Environmental Protection Agency’s Great Lakes Restoration Initiative.

In the future I hope Lake Erie will return to the glory days when it is not only a workhorse for industry and commerce, but a great place to grow up, can also support a viable, self-sustaining fishery for recreational anglers and a well-managed, productive commercial fishery. I would like Lake Erie to be a good experience to be shared with locals and visitors, and serve as a model for recovery of a lost aquatic resource. And I’m still hoping to catch that record class lake trout someday.

Read our homepage story on this topic.