Tag Archives: USGS

Die-hard angling for lake trout

Curt is a fisheries biologist at the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation in New York. Photo credit: USFWS

Curt holding a three year old cisco. Photo credit: USFWS

Today we hear from Curt Karboski, fish biologist with the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office located in western New York. He’s part of a team working to restore iconic fish species such as lake trout and lake sturgeon to the Great Lakes. Join Curt and his team in the Niagara Gorge, located below Niagara Falls as they search for lake trout – the largest trout native to the Great Lakes.

The Niagara Gorge, about 3 miles downstream from the infamous Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

The Niagara Gorge, about 3 miles downstream from the well know Niagara Falls. Photo credit: USFWS

In a time of year when only the most die-hard lake trout and steelhead anglers flock to Niagara Gorge, it is rare to see fish biologists plying the waters alongside them. But on a cold rainy day in November, biologists from the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office were there, relying on the knowledge and skill of a local charter captain to help catch lake trout they needed in order to complete a study. The highly turbulent waters and strong flows downstream of Niagara Falls make it impossible to use standard fish-sampling gear without harming the fish or endangering the crew.  An estimated 100,000 cubic feet of water per second comes over Niagara Falls, and our GPS has shown us moving as much as 15 mph with the motor idling. Thus, we enlisted assistance from a local captain who has years of experience angling for lake trout in these waters, and in spite of the weather, we collected 22 lake trout!

Dan Drake, Lower Great Lakes FWCO with a lake trout caught on the Niagara River in the Niagara Gorge in November 2015. Photo credit: USFWS

Fish biologist Dan Drake holds a lake trout caught on the Niagara River in the Niagara Gorge in November 2015. Photo credit: USFWS

In conducting our study, we were looking to answer specific questions such as; where do lake trout spend their time in the river and is it seasonal?, when do they leave the river and enter Lake Ontario?, and is their location important to their growth and reproduction? This information will help guide biologists when making decisions on stocking lake trout and conserving their habitat to restore this valuable fishery.

After collecting the lake trout, the charter captain motored us over to the Linneaus and we transferred the trout on board to be measured and have tags implanted. Photo credit: USFWS

After collecting the lake trout, the charter captain motored us over to the Linneaus and we transferred the trout on board to be measured and have tags implanted. Photo credit: USFWS

In a protected area along the gorge, we moored the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s vessel Linnaeus, to be used as a stream-side platform for measuring fish and implanting them with a tag.  After collecting the lake trout, we transferred them on board the Linnaeus where we recorded length, weight and gender; then anesthetized ten females and surgically implanted them with acoustic tags. 

Lower Great Lakes biologists surgically implant an acoustic tag in a lake trout under mild anesthesia, with minimal stress to the fish. Photo credit: USFWS

Service biologists surgically implant an acoustic tag in a lake trout under mild anesthesia, with minimal stress to the fish. Photo credit: USFWS

Lake trout are real wanderers traveling many miles in search of food, and some return to the same spawning beds each year. The acoustic tags transmit a series of pings that can be decoded by underwater receivers and deliver information on individual fish. As the tagged fish move through the river, an array of acoustic receivers detect the pings sent out by the tag, helping  us identify the location and depth of each fish, and the amount of time they spend in any given area. The long battery life of the acoustic tag makes it possible to track the fish for several years, allowing us to learn more about spawning behavior and the types of habitats that are key to maintaining a healthy population. 

Ten lake trout were tagged and released back into the Niagara River in November 2015. We will tag 10 more fish next year, as well. Photo credit: USFWS

Ten lake trout were tagged and released back into the Niagara River in November 2015. We will tag 10 more fish next year. Photo credit: USFWS

As top predators, lake trout are ecologically important in helping to maintain balance among other species, creating space for aquatic life in the lake. Lake trout are economically important and have historically supported a strong commercial and recreational fishing industry. But by the 1930’s, pollution, over-fishing and the invasive sea lamprey led to their decline throughout the Great Lakes, and by the 1950’s they had completely disappeared from Lake Ontario.

Since lake trout do not reproduce until they are at least 6 to 10 years old, it takes a long time for populations to rebuild themselves when their numbers are very low.  A stocking program, in concert with active sea lamprey control that began in 1971, has been helping to restore the lake trout. The Service conducts these programs with state, Tribal and Canadian partners on the Great Lakes. According to USGS Biologist Brian Lantry, recent trawl surveys found wild lake trout juveniles, suggesting there may be natural reproduction occurring again in the Niagara River region.

Fishing for lake trout on the gorge. Photo credit: USFWS

Fishing for lake trout on the gorge. Photo credit: USFWS

Beginning in spring, we will be back on the river and on the lake alongside our fellow die-hard anglers in search of evidence that our Great Lake trout are coming back from the brink. Understanding their spawning behavior and habitat preferences in the Niagara Gorge will help us manage towards a self-sustaining population and inform future decisions on conserving habitat.

Learn more: Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office

Read other blogs about the work of the Lower Great Lakes Fish and Wildlife Conservation Office: Secrets of the Lower Great Lakes: The search for lake sturgeon and Setting the stage for sturgeon

 

Partnerships for fish passage

As a Pathways Student in the Fish Passage Engineer Program, Kevin enjoys working in the field on mission critical projects. Photo Credit: USFWS

As a Pathways student in the Fish Passage Engineer Program, Kevin often works in the field on mission critical projects. Photo Credit: USFWS

Kevin Mulligan is a Pathways Program student working on the Northeast Region’s fish passage engineer team. The fish passage engineering program is the result of a successful partnership between the Service, U.S. Geological Survey and the University of Massachusetts. Today, Kevin shares with us his experiences on the team.

The term “fish passage engineer” may not be the most trending subject in media these days, but for fish species that need access to habitat in order to live, a fish passage engineer can be the difference between finding  successful spawning  sites or, literally, hitting a brick wall.

I was first introduced to the Fish Passage Engineer Team through a partnership between UMass, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the U.S. Geological Survey. At the time I was working on my graduate studies within the UMass Department of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering. The partnership is designed to give students practical on-the-job experience, and at the same time provide the agencies with academic resources for doing research and having students assist with critical work. As part of the partnership, Service employees teach classes and work with students on real, working projects.  In September 2013, I began a research project at UMass funded by the Hydro Research Foundation.  My adviser, Brett Towler, is a member of the Service’s Fish Passage Engineer Team and an adjunct professor at the university.  In May 2015, once my graduate studies were nearly completed, I joined the team as a Pathways Program intern.

The Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts is another location where fish engineers work to move fish upstream to reach spawning habitat. Photo credit: USFWS

The Holyoke Dam on the Connecticut River in Massachusetts is another location where fish engineers work to move fish upstream to reach spawning habitat. Photo credit: USFWS

My primary focus as part of the engineer team is to develop the region’s first ever fish passage engineering design criteria manual. Creating the manual requires integration of numerous scientific and engineering disciplines that include fish behavior, hydraulics, hydrology and hydropower. But for the fish and aquatic species I am working for, the criteria manual means survival.

Kevin visits the Howland Dam bypass in Maine as part of his Pathways experience. Photo credit: USFWS

Kevin visits the Howland Dam bypass in Maine as part of his Pathways experience. Photo credit: USFWS

As a Pathways Program intern some of the perks of working with the fish passage engineering team are visiting fishways throughout scenic New England, participating in technical meetings and learning from professionals actively working in the field. Thanks to my education and the partnership with the Service and USGS I feel equipped to handle these experiences and projects that I am asked to assist with. Specific courses in the fish passage specialization program that have been particularly useful in my work for the partnership are The Design of Fish Passage Facilities, Open Channel Flow, Hydrology, and the Ecology of Fish.

A banner displayed at the Fish Passage Conference held in the Netherlands. Photo credit: USFWS

A banner is displayed at the Fish Passage Conference held in the Netherlands. Organizations from all over the world come together each year to share the latest science in fish passage engineering. Photo credit: USFWS

One of the projects I have been fortunate to work on was developing computational fluid dynamics and physical models to enhance the design of downstream guidance structures for fish passage. In addition, the partnership started an Annual International Fish Passage Conference, to which I have been on the organizing team for the past five years. After being held in Massachusetts at UMass in 2010, the conference took place in Oregon, Wisconsin and The Netherlands. My participation in the conference has allowed me to connect with people in the field of fish passage from all over the world.

I am honored to be part of such an amazing team of fish passage engineers and biologists northeast whose mission is to improve the life of aquatic organisms in our rivers and oceans. My time with the Service and the work through the partnership has truly been educational and personally rewarding. Undoubtedly, the additional knowledge and skills I’ve gained will be useful throughout my career.

Learn more about the Fish Passage Engineering partnership with UMass.

Learn more about fish passage.

Men dressed in colonial wear in a boat with an American flag

Silent witnesses to the historic Christmas night crossing of the Delaware

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Fisheries Biologist Catherine Gatenby dishes about fish!

On December 25, 1776 the watermen of Massachusetts navigated George Washington and his Continental Army across the Delaware River in the dark of the night. Below, huddling together in the depths of the river, were likely hundreds of witnesses to this historic event, shortnose sturgeon (Acipenser brevirostrum).

Men dressed in colonial wear in a boat with an American flag

Reenactment of Washington crossing the Delaware on Christmas. Credit: Bucks County CVB.

At 55 pounds and five feet long, shortnose sturgeon are large fish, but they are the smallest of the three species of sturgeon in eastern North America. Like their cousins the Atlantic sturgeon, they once occurred by the thousands in coastal rivers from Canada to Florida.  Unlike Atlantic sturgeon, however, the shortnose spends most of its life in rivers – even in the cold of December.

By the end of the 19th century, overharvest had seriously depleted shortnose sturgeon populations. Damming rivers and using them as dumping grounds during the industrialization of the U.S. were final blows to sturgeon and their habitat.  By 1967 only a few remnant populations existed, so shortnose sturgeon were included on the original endangered species list. 

A large fish with a flattened nose lurks.

Shortnose sturgeon. Credit: USFWS

Today, after 40 years of protection by the Endangered Species Act and the Clean Water Act, shortnose sturgeon seem to be doing better in northern rivers. The Hudson River population alone has increased by over 400 percent since 1973.

 Shortnose sturgeon have been found again in the Penobscot River in Maine.  “Finding them at all is big; they haven’t been seen in the Penobscot since 1970” said Dr. Joe Zydlewski, Maine Cooperative Research Unit, U.S. Geological Survey – as he quickly suggested I speak with his wife, Dr. Gail Zydlewski, at the University of Maine.

In 2005 Dr. Zydlewski began a tagging program to monitor shortnose migratory behaviors and use of rivers in Maine after a fisherman hauled in a shortnose from the Penobscot. She and her team found that shortnose sturgeon in the Penobscot may migrate to the Kennebec River to spawn. 

Once upon a time, the Penobscot River had huge populations of spawning shortnose and Atlantic sturgeon and the fish may yet live happily ever after there. Removal of the Veazie and other dams will restore access to 100 percent of historic spawning habitat for all sturgeon in the Penobscot River.  

A biologist handles a fish in a trough.

This shortnose sturgeon was caught in the Delaware River during a population health assessment
by the Service and Maryland Department of Natural Resources.
Credit: USFWS

In the Delaware River, shortnose sturgeon may be rebounding as well, helping to repopulate the Potomac River via the Chesapeake and Delaware Canal.  Shortnose were thought to be gone from the Potomac, but fishermen have reported catching them in the past 10 years and scientists with the U.S. Geological Survey and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service identified a shortnose making a pre-spawning migration run in the Potomac River. “Although, we aren’t yet certain whether shortnose are spawning in the Potomac, we are certain suitable habitat exists for foraging, wintering and spawning,” said Mike Mangold, Service Biologist.

A biologist handles a fish on a dock.

Shortnose sturgeon captured in the upper Chesapeake Bay by a commercial fisherman was tagged to monitor behavior and identify potential suitable habitat. Credit: USFWS

In 1992, the Service’s Maryland Fisheries Resource Office began managing the Atlantic Coast Cooperative Sturgeon Tagging program. “We are building a better understanding of how populations are faring in the wild, and where to focus efforts on restoring additional habitat for sturgeon” said Sheila Eyler, program coordinator. 

As we reflect back upon the historic crossing of the Delaware this holiday season, let’s also reflect how fortunate we are to enjoy the heritage of our native fish populations and  healthy, rich and productive rivers now and always.