Tag Archives: walleye

The Great Hill People of the Beautiful River and Their Conservation Efforts

This story is a part of the Native American Blog Series in observance of National Native American Heritage.

The Seneca Nation of Indians are the “Keepers of the Western Door” and are called the “Great Hill People” or “O-non-dowa-gah” in their own language. The Seneca people are culturally attached to their ancestral lands, and call the Allegheny River the “Ohi’yo” which translates into “beautiful river”. The Ohi’yo or Allegheny River joins the Monongahela River to form the Ohio River, which then the Ohio River flows into the Mississippi River. To many Seneca Native Americans, the Allegheny River and its connections are simply called Ohi’yo  River no matter what region it is in.

seneca territory

Currently, the Seneca Nation of Indians holds 53,884 acres of Tribal lands within two territories: the Allegany and the Cattaraugus, as well as the Oil Springs Reservation which is 640 acres in the state of New York.  Photo Credit: eSpatially New York, 2015

The Seneca Nation of Indians has a robust wildlife program and is undertaking many projects to protect and restore fish and wildlife cultural important to their people.  In 2015, the Seneca Nation of Indians were awarded Federal funding for a project titled “Conservation Management” through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Tribal Wildlife Grant (TWG) program. The goal of the project is to increase stream and shoreline restoration within the Cattaraugus Creek, to benefit sacred fish species including the brook trout and steelhead fish. According to Seneca oral histories, the Great Spirit had caught and admired the beauty of the brook trout. The Great Spirit’s touch turned the black ebony color of the trout into silvery spots and halos. Since the brook trout had been handled by the Great Spirit and spared for its beauty to live on, the Seneca Nation of Indians do not eat brook trout, but hold it as sacred in the highest regard of fish (Indian Legend received by Larry Becelia).

Additionally, a freshwater hatchery in Cattaraugus Territory, which will also serve as an educational center for the community, is being created under management of Greg Lay, Fish and Wildlife Department for the Seneca Indian Nation. The hatchery will be used for Eastern brook trout. The Seneca Nation provides power to both facilities using solar panels and other sustainable methods.

Another project the Seneca Nation of Indians is working on is to stabilize the walleye population, which is a fish that is both a culturally significant and a subsistence food for the Seneca Nation of Indians, through establishment of a fish rearing facility in the Allegany territory. The rearing facility is managed by Shane Titus, the Fishery’s Manager and and Larry Becelia, the Conservation Manager of Seneca Nation of Indians Fish and Wildlife Department. The highland Strain of Walleye (adult male and females) are caught from the Allegany Reservoir during spawning season using an electroshocking boat. After the reproductive materials have been collected by the caught adults, they are released further up the Allegany River. This location is chosen in hopes that mature walleye will stay up river and spawn in the future to increase the upstream population. When the walleye fry hatch in the rearing facility, they are released where the Allegany reservoir and Allegany River meet.

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Larry Becelia, Conservation Manager  of the Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife Department holding a walleye.

The Seneca Nation Fish and Wildlife Department has also established a research program, in which walleye females that were caught, held, and released from the facility are tagged with URL links, identification numbers, and QR codes. This system is used in the hopes that future anglers can log the individual fish into the system and see where it has traveled on the map. One example of this form of “citizen science” was encountered when a fisherman caught a walleye female all the way in Pennsylvania! The Seneca Nation of Indians have also built a stocking pond near the facility for catch and release fishing of walleye, to ensure that traditional fishing activities are available for the Tribal community.

 

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Shane and Larry also organize a youth program in the summer to create artificial habitat for fish. Eleven- to sixteen-year olds use recycled vinyl siding, quick cement, and pipes to create a resting place for spawning fish. Using grant funds, the Seneca Nation of Indians have also been able to order large boulders to be placed into the freshwater system to provide resting pools for fish. Photo Credit: Zintkala Eiring

In addition, the Seneca Nation of Indians is in partnership with Cornell University and the State of New York to research the chytrid disease in the eastern hellbender, a protected species of large salamander. Several individuals with the disease were unable to be cured, and thus, are unable to be released back into their natural system. Currently, the SNI resource managers, Shane and Titus, continue to take care of a handful of eastern hellbenders. Fortunately, several hellbenders without the chytrid disease were able to be released into their natural environment in the summer of 2017.

The O-non-dawa-gah or Seneca people have been conserving their lands for thousands of years. Through the tribal wildlife grants program, they continue to demonstrate their ancestral ties to the Ohi’yo River and its wildlife inhabitants, as well as the protection of species through their hatchery, stream-bank restoration projects, and species recovery programs. Tribal environmental managers pass on their traditional ecological knowledge and conservation skillset to Seneca youth each summer, so generations can continue O-non-dawa-gah traditions into the future.

The Seneca Indian Nation’s conservation management projects were made possible by the dedication and efforts of the Seneca Nation of Indians, other partnerships, and the Tribal Wildlife Grants program of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Tribal wildlife grants are funded through an annual appropriation from the Land and Water Conservation Fund. These grants have awarded more than $77 million to Tribes since 2003, which provide support for approximately 444 conservation projects throughout Indian Country. For more information about tribal wildlife grants please visit https://www.fws.gov/northeast/nativeamerican/index.html

A Hopeful Fish Tale

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After another spring melt, the swollen streams and rivers had begun to subside.  Water temperatures fluctuated between 7-10⁰C.  Just in time for an important seasonal event, we made our way out into the field.

Walleye are a popular game fish in New York State, commonly known to thrive in large natural lakes and big rivers.  But this time of year, some populations defy expectation.  Like salmon or trout, some walleye make a “spring run” up tributaries in search of suitable spawning habitat.  In some documented cases, walleye have traveled over 100 miles upstream.  For a large lumbersome fish, swimming against the current is no simple feat.

Seven years ago, a barrier that prevented fish from migrating upstream was removed from a tributary to the St. Lawrence River, called Little Sucker Brook.  Despite its name, this small stream accommodates more than just an abundance of suckers.  Walleye are one of the priority species identified during the relicensing of the St. Lawrence Power Project that would be targeted for restoration through the Fish Enhancement, Mitigation, and Research Fund (FEMRF).  Just this winter, with funding provided by the FEMRF, the New York Field Office Partners for Fish and Wildlife staff worked with a private landowner to install two walleye spawning beds upstream of the removed barrier; meaning stones were strategically laid to provide an ideal environment for egg laying.

I joined New York Field Office biologist Justin Ecret to check in on the project.  He had deployed several cement blocks wrapped in a fine mesh into Little Sucker Brook to try and capture any eggs drifting down from the spawning bed.  For the first two days, we had our doubts that we had missed the run.  But on the third day, we had successfully collected some eggs.  Unfortunately, in the field it is nearly impossible to differentiate between sucker and walleye eggs without a microscope.

Then something happened that neither of us were expecting.  Over the berm, where the water begins rippling over the gravel bed, flashed a large fish tail.  It quickly disappeared again into the murky brown water.  Moments later, a small and large tail appeared together.  My heart jumped at the sight of the fish.  I looked over at Justin Ecret for confirmation; we had seen a small male and large female walleye on one of the rocky beds!

With a boost of confidence, Justin Ecret took a closer look at the egg samples back in the lab.  Sure enough, these were walleye eggs.  After just a couple months of constructing spawning beds, the walleye were there to use them.  This is just the first hopeful tale of these FEMRF funded projects, which aim to improve suitable spawning habitat for walleye with the ultimate goal of increasing the walleye population in the St. Lawrence River.  Watch the video of this exciting encounter:

Heavy machinery at hogansburg dam

Removing Hogansburg dam = Restoring nature and culture in Upstate NY

Check out the rapid changes to the St. Regis River even after just removing the west side of Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam. Photo courtesy of Tony David

Check out the rapid changes to the St. Regis River even after just removing the west side of Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam. More like a river, less like a lake! Photo courtesy of Tony David.

Justin Dalaba

Today you’re hearing from Justin Dalaba, our new outreach coordinator for the New York Field Office. He graduated this summer from St. Lawrence University with a bachelor of science in conservation biology. Welcome Justin!

Near the mouth of the St. Regis River in Franklin County, New York, are the final remnants of the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam.

The 330-foot-long dam blocked migrating fish and hindered a way of life for over 85 years. The dam neighbors the Saint Regis Mohawk reservation, also known as Akwesasne, and is part of the Tribe’s decades old boundary claim. Talk among stakeholders about decommissioning the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Project, owned by Brookfield Renewable Energy, began in the early stages of Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, aka FERC, relicensing nearly five years ago.

Here’s what you should know:

    1. Hogansburg is the first hydroelectric dam in New York State to be fully removed. Plus, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe is the first Tribe in the U.S. to remove a FERC-licensed hydroelectric dam!
      Hogansburg Dam has been the site for various mills and dams since 1762, with the initial construction of the Hogansburg Hydroelectric Dam we know today in 1929. The project underwent a thorough review in 2015, when FERC needed to begin the project’s relicensing process. For Brookfield, relicensing would mean costly mechanical and environmental work. Our agency, along with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, Trout Unlimited, and Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe, offered an alternative—decommission the dam in disrepair. The Tribe took the lead, ultimately returning project lands to the Mohawk people. FERC issued a decommissioning order in June 2016, followed two months later by removal that is now near completion.
    2. The removal of Hogansburg Dam has reconnected nearly 275 miles of main stem and tributary habitat for migratory fish. Removing Hogansburg Dam, the first dam on the St. Regis River, will re-establish the river’s direct connection to the St. Lawrence River. For nearly a century, the dam has blocked this important stream habitat to fish migrating from the St. Lawrence River within the St. Regis watershed. The key fish that will benefit from removal of the dam include the American eel (Anguilla rostrata), lake sturgeon (Acipenser fulvescens), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), and walleye (Sander vitreus).

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      Juvenile lake sturgeon, one of the species expected to benefit from the dam removal.
      Credit: Justin Dalaba, USFWS

    3. Removing Hogansburg Dam restores historic territory that has shaped the Mohawk peoples’ way of life.
      The Mohawk people of Akwesasne have a deeply rooted history in a subsistence lifestyle including hunting and fishing along the expansive network of rivers connecting the St. Lawrence River to the Adirondacks. This was changed when early settlers reshaped the network of tributaries for natural resource and hydroelectric power exploitation.With funding from a variety of private and federal sources, the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe was able to have a direct hand in the Hogansburg Dam removal and studying pre and post removal conditions. Decommissioning of the Hogansburg Project means the repatriation of land to the Tribe surrounding the river. Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe will continue working with other stakeholders to study changes following the dam removal.

      Heavy machinery at hogansburg dam

      Let the heavy machinery have at it! Photo courtesy of Tony David.

    4. This removed dam does not mean lost power.
      The poorly functioning Hogansburg Dam provided a miniscule amount of the power supplied for New York (if you want to be exact, 0.00058%). While the project could power 74 households per year in total, it was in need of significant resources to run, repair and upgrade the facility. In comparison, the much larger Moses-Saunders Power Dam on the St. Lawrence River matches Hogansburg’s annual power output roughly every 30 minutes. The Moses-Saunders Power Dam produces more than enough electricity to light a city the size of Washington, D.C.!
    5. The removal of Hogansburg Dam is a stepping-stone toward future conservation.
      While removing this dam does not restore the entire landscape, it is an important starting point toward meeting migratory fish restoration goals and restoring land for the Tribe. This is an opportunity for scientists, including our agency and the U.S. Geological Survey, to work with the Saint Regis Mohawk Tribe to monitor the success of the dam removal and future habitat enhancement.
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Stephen Patch, senior fish & wildlife biologist at the New York Field Office, stands among the final remnants of the Hogansburg Dam. Steve has been an integral part of the dam removal. Credit: Anne Secord, USFWS.