The Great Lakes Fishery Commission (GLFC) has announced stocking reductions will be taking place in Lake Ontario in 2017.

Stocking reductions were necessary (according to lake managers from New York and the Province of Ontario) due to poor alewife recruitment following the severe winters of 2013 and 2014. It’s important to note that stocking 20 percent less Chinook salmon and lake trout into the lake does not necessarily mean that there will be a reduction in fishing quality – keep that in mind.

In making the stocking reduction decision, the Lake Ontario Committee (LOC) – comprised of Steve LaPan as the Great Lakes Fisheries section head for the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and Andy Todd, manager of the Lake Ontario Management Unit for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF) – emphasized that it was important to maintain a quality fishery for salmon and trout.

The LOC, a group falling under the GLFC, follows a joint strategic plan for management of the Great Lakes fisheries. It involves management of issues of common concern by consensus. Fish community objectives guide the overall management of the lake.

“We have the best fishery in the Great Lakes as far as size and diversity,” LaPan said. “There’s nothing like it in the world. New York and Ontario’s commitment is that we don’t want this to go away. Our policies won’t change, no matter who is in these positions.We can’t have a quality Chinook fishery without alewives.

Typically, ages 3, 4 and 5 year classes make up a bulk of the adult population of alewives. There could be as many as 9 year classes of alewives in the system.

“Those diminished numbers from 2013 and 2014 will keep getting smaller as salmon or other fish species feed on them,” LaPan said. “In 2017, those two struggling year classes will be 3 and 4 years old. In 2018, they will be ages 4 and 5.

“When you take into consideration that we have increased salmon stocking by 31 percent over the LOC target of 2.36 million annually through increased survival of pen rearing, and natural reproduction of salmon accounts for 50 percent of the salmon in the lake, we had no alternative but to propose reducing salmon stocking by 20 percent in 2017.”

Fishing quality should not be reduced for several years, if at all, according to officials. Reduced stocking next spring will not directly impact fishing numbers until 2019 or 2020, when those fish are 2 and 3 years old. In 2008, when the lake saw a 42 percent reduction in Chinook salmon stocking due a severe problem with egg collection targets at the Salmon River Fish Hatchery in Altmar, there were no measurable impacts to fishing quality in the years that followed. This could, in part, be attributed to the large number of wild fish that are now an important component to the ecosystem.

There is a significant number of salmon being naturally reproduced in the state’s Salmon River, as well as in streams along the north shore of the lake. Based on DEC’s annual assessment of age 3 Chinook in the lake, 35 percent of the fish in 2008 were tabbed as wild; 53 percent in 2009; 70 percent in 2010; and 38 percent in 2011. The overall average is 49.5 percent. “We had one of the strongest spring salmon assessments that we have ever seen from the Salmon River in 2016,” LaPan noted at a meeting in Lockport in September.

Increased numbers of wild fish in the system is an important part of this management decision. In fact, the GLFC press release states that because 50 percent of the lake’s salmon are wild, the stocking reduction is really only 10 percent. The combined stockings will be 1.88 million kings; 750,000 lake trout for 2017. And based on the “sound science” being presented, more than two million salmon will also be reared in the lake through natural reproduction.

A Case for Status Quo

Two groups have been extremely vocal against the salmon cuts -- the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association and the Niagara County Fisheries Development Board. They have outlined a long list of arguments that insist the decision may be premature. For starters, they say the LOC does not have all of the information needed to make an informed decision. Lake managers don’t have a clue how many predator fish are in the lake or how many survive a stocking. How can they make those claims of absolute percentages? To compound matters, there are no salmon studies being conducted in the lake currently to determine the difference between wild or stocked salmon.

In assessing the local fish stocks, poor annual returns in the Niagara River and, most recently, 18 Mile Creek in Olcott (and the corresponding staging fishery off the creek and river mouths) point to serious survival concerns. And there is very little natural reproduction in the Western Basin of New York.

“Those salmon were either caught, strayed to other areas or they died,” said Joe Yaeger, president of the Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Association, in trying to figure out where the salmon have gone in recent years. “Since DEC has told us that very few stray back to places like the Salmon River, that leaves us two alternatives. We need to be concerned about the fish that are stocked right here. When August arrives, the majority of any mature salmon in the area start making their trips back to where they were stocked or to the Salmon River – both stocked and wild fish. Those fish aren’t here.”

“That 20 percent cut is already occurring naturally,” said Capt. Vince Pierleoni, a charter captain out of Newfane. “We are catching a heck of a lot more fish in that lake than anyone realizes. Not only are we better at catching fish, we are better at finding them. When you consider bird predation from cormorants, predation on stocked fish from other predator fish like panfish, bass and pike in the harbors, and losses from the hatchery due to stocking issues, we already have a built in cut in place. We don’t need any further stocking reductions.”

King salmon is the main draw for Lake Ontario, hands down. It’s one of the biggest reasons why Niagara County shows an annual impact of $30 million annually based on a 2010 study conducted by Niagara University. If the wrong message gets out, it could have a seriously detrimental economic impact.