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Overview for Discussions Regarding 2017 Salmon and Trout Stocking Levels in Lake Ontario

Lake Ontario supports a world class offshore boat and tributary fishery. Anglers in the New York waters and tributaries of Lake Ontario caught more than 234,000 trout and salmon including Chinook and coho salmon, rainbow trout, brown trout, lake trout and Atlantic salmon in 2015. One of the greatest strengths of the Lake Ontario sportfishery is its diversity; anglers can target other species when their preferred target isn't "cooperating." Chinook salmon is the most sought after species because it can grow to over 30 pounds and is a great fighting fish. Lake Ontario produces the largest Chinook salmon in the Great Lakes, and fishing success for Chinook salmon has been at or near record-high levels since 2003. In 2007, New York's lake and tributary fisheries supported over 2.6 million angler days generating an estimated $112 million in economic activity. New York State and the Province of Ontario stock more than 5.7 million trout and salmon annually to support recreational fisheries and restore native species. In addition, approximately 50% of the Chinook salmon in the lake are naturally reproduced or "wild" fish.

Managing Lake Ontario Fisheries

Lake Ontario fisheries are managed cooperatively by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) and the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry (OMNRF). Under the framework of the Great Lakes Fishery Commission's Joint Strategic Plan for Management of Great Lakes Fisheries, the DEC and OMNRF consulted extensively with the angling public in developing the 2013 Lake Ontario Fish Community Objectives (available as a PDF download on the Great Lakes Fishery Commission Lake Ontario Committee webpage).(link leaves DEC's website)

The FCOs provide overall management direction for both New York and Ontario, and are used to establish agency management policies. In response to angler's input, the FCO goal for the offshore, open water zone is to "Maintain the offshore pelagic fish community, that is characterized by a diversity of trout and salmon species including Chinook Salmon, Coho Salmon, Rainbow Trout, Brown Trout, and Atlantic Salmon, in balance with prey-fish populations and lower trophic levels." Further, the primary objective under this goal is to "maintain Chinook Salmon as the top offshore pelagic predator supporting trophy recreational lake and tributary fisheries through stocking."

Under the guidance of the FCOs, The Lake Ontario Committee, comprised of DEC and OMNRF fisheries managers, establishes lake-wide stocking targets. In recognition of the critical role a healthy alewife population plays in maintaining a high-quality Chinook fishery, the FCOs also acknowledge the need to "maintain abundance of top predators (stocked and wild) in balance with available prey fish."

Partner agencies including the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission are also involved in providing science support, controlling sea lamprey and raising fish for stocking. Scientists from the aforementioned agencies, along with academics, are members of the Lake Ontario Technical Committee, which provides scientific advice to the Lake Ontario Committee.

Concerns Over the Future of the Alewife Population

The main prey fish in Lake Ontario is the non-native alewife, a type of herring native to the Atlantic Ocean. Fisheries Management agencies track the status of alewife through a long term bottom trawling program. In 2016, adult alewife numbers are significantly lower than in 2015, and will likely continue to decline over the next few years. Alewife, age-2 and older, are the preferred food for the top predator in the lake, Chinook salmon.

Alewife in the Great lakes are at the northern extreme of their tolerance for cold temperatures, and young alewife have difficulty surviving long, cold winters. The severe winters of 2013/14 and 2014/15 negatively impacted survival of alewife produced in those years. In 2016, the alewife produced in 2013 and 2014 should have dominated the adult alewife population at ages 3 and 2, respectively, however, these ages are poorly represented in the population. Without sufficient young alewife to replace older alewife, the number of adults will decline in 2017 and beyond.

DEC and OMNRF are concerned that without enough young alewife to replenish the adults that are eaten primarily by trout and salmon, there may not be sufficient prey to support the current, high-quality fishery in the future. While all of Lake Ontario's trout and salmon feed to some extent on alewife, Chinook salmon feed almost exclusively on age 2 and older alewife and exert the greatest predation pressure on the adult alewife population.

It is important to note that this situation is not the same as the alewife population collapse in Lake Huron, or the continuing alewife decline in Lake Michigan. Reduced nutrients leading to less alewife food and fewer alewife, combined with too many predators, are thought to be key factors leading to predator-prey imbalance in the upper lakes. In Lake Ontario, for now, we have sufficient nutrients to support alewife and their food. The current issue appears related to poor alewife reproduction in 2013 and 2014, combined with high predator demand for alewife.

Management Options for 2017

The only effective solution to this issue is to reduce predator demand on alewife as soon as possible. Given the rapid growth of Chinook salmon (from 0 to 30 pounds in 4 years) and their dependence on alewife, reducing Chinook salmon stocking provides the only practical solution for reducing predation on alewife in the short term.

Ontario and New York State's combined Chinook salmon stocking target is 2.3 million fish, however, a recent study has shown that we are effectively stocking more than 3 million Chinook salmon due the great success of the net pen program. Chinooks held in net pens by sportsmen's groups for three to four weeks prior to release have been shown to survive twice as well as traditional "direct" stocked fish. When we factor in the additional wild fish, the equivalent of 6 million Chinook salmon are added to the lake annually.

DEC is considering a 20% reduction in Chinook salmon stocking in 2017 (reduce from 1.76 million to 1.41 million fish), which amounts to a 10% overall reduction when wild Chinook salmon are included. This action would reduce alewife consumption attributable to Chinook salmon by 7.5 million pounds over the period from 2018-2020. Future increases in Chinook salmon would be considered when alewife population characteristics indicate good overall "health."

We are also considering a 20% reduction in 2017 lake trout stocking (New York reduction from 500,000 to 400,000 fish), however, this action will not provide short term reductions in alewife predation, as lake trout grow much slower than Chinook salmon, are not as dependent on alewife as a food source, but do live much longer than Chinook salmon. The adult lake trout population is currently at levels favorable for natural reproduction. A 20% reduction will not impact lake trout restoration efforts in the short term, however, stocking levels will be increased if the adult population size falls below target levels in the future.

DEC is proposing to maintain current stocking targets for rainbow trout, brown trout and coho salmon for 2017, and is working cooperatively with the OMNRF to ensure consistent management actions on both sides of the lake.

Potential Impacts to the Sportfishery

This stocking reduction is intended to protect the long-term viability of this economically important fishery. Given a 20% reduction in Chinook salmon stocking actually equates to a 10% lake wide reduction (accounting for 50% wild Chinook salmon), the potential impact to the sportfishery is likely minor. DEC's proposed Lake Ontario stocking target for 2017 is 3,111,735 trout and salmon combined, and fishing quality is resilient due to multiple ages of fish within each of six species of trout and salmon.

DEC's Proposed 2017 Lake Ontario Trout and Salmon Stockings
Species Life-Stage Proposed NYSDEC
Stocking 2017
Chinook Salmon Spring Yearlings 1,409,208
Lake Trout Spring Yearlings 400,000
Rainbow Trout Spring Yearlings 615,700
Brown Trout Spring Yearlings 391,755
Atlantic Salmon Spring Yearlings 50,000
Coho Salmon Fall Fingerlings 155,000
Spring Yearlings 90,000
Combined Total* 3,111,735

*Does not include wild Chinook salmon that average 50% of the population annually

Chinook salmon stocking levels have been reduced in the past without impact to the sportfishery. Due to reduced Chinook salmon egg collections at the Salmon River Hatchery caused by low water and high water temperatures in 2007, DEC stocked only 799,000 Chinook salmon in the spring of 2008, a 42% reduction (NY/Ontario combined). When these fish reached age 2 in 2010 and age 3 in 2011, they supported excellent Chinook salmon fishing quality.

As anglers experienced in 2014 and 2015, fishing success is much more likely to vary due to spatial distribution of alewife, water temperatures, weather patterns, and wind speed/direction.

Similar to the proposed Chinook salmon stocking reduction, reduced lake trout stocking will not likely impact lake trout angling success.

Future Management Actions

DEC and OMNRF remain committed to maintaining the ecological, recreational, and economic benefits of Lake Ontario's sportfishery, and in particular, the Chinook salmon fishery. Any future management actions will be based on the results of 2017 alewife population assessments, as well as changes in Chinook salmon growth. In the event that further management actions are deemed necessary, the Department will consult with stakeholder groups and the public.

Next steps

DEC will hold public meetings at the following times and locations:

  • Monday, September 19: 6:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. at the Cornell Cooperative Extension Building, 4487 Lake Avenue, Lockport, Niagara County.
  • Tuesday, September 20: 6:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. at the Sandy Creek High School auditorium, 124 Salisbury Street, Oswego County.
  • Tuesday, September 27: 6:30 p.m. - 9:00 p.m. at the Town of Greece Town Hall, 1 Vince Tofany Blvd., Monroe County.

DEC staff will present information, and the audience will have ample time to ask questions and provide input on potential management actions. Those who cannot attend a meeting can provide comments at .

A final decision will be announced in mid-October, 2016.

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