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Preserving New York's Fisheries Diversity


By Greg Kozlowski and Jeffrey Loukmas

New York’s freshwaters are home to over 165 species of fish. Most of these fish do fine on their own. Other fish are managed as sport fisheries, commonly through fishing regulations, monitoring, and stocking. Then there are our rare, threatened and endangered fish species that need extra care. Counted in this group are lake sturgeon and paddlefish. Both are ancient fish species that New York is trying to restore. Because they mature late (10-12 years for paddlefish and 15-20 years for sturgeon), managing these fish species for recovery is a long term project!


An adult paddlefish from Allegany Reservoir

Paddlefish (Polyodon spathula) are shaped unlike any other freshwater fish, with a long paddle-like snout and smooth skin. They eat zooplankton and grow to 3-4 feet at maturity. They spawn in shallow stream riffles with clean gravel, but spend most of their lives in slow moving stretches of rivers and backwater areas rich in plankton. Reservoirs also provide excellent habitat for paddlefish through most of the year, but can cut the fish off from preferred spawning areas.

Paddlefish historically occurred in the Allegheny River system of New York State, which marks the extreme northeastern extent of its range. At the turn of the 19th Century, paddlefish were reported in the Allegheny near  the cities of Salamanca and Olean, New York. The demise of paddlefish in New York has been attributed to channelization of the Allegheny, which eliminated backwater areas, dam building, gravel mining, dredging, and water pollution. With the construction of the Kinzua Dam in 1968, any hopes of natural restoration ended.

The goal of the paddlefish recovery program is to establish a self-sustaining population in Allegany River drainage. New York restoration efforts began in 1998, with the stocking of 48 paddlefish in Allegheny Reservoir’s Onoville Bay. Through the summer of 2010, about 13,000 fingerling paddlefish have been stocked in New York waters, including  Chautauqua Lake and Conewango Creek.

Radio tagging studies indicate that some of the paddlefish stocked in NY are passing through the Kinzua Dam gates (a one way trip); however, the majority of the tagged fish stay within Allegany Reservoir. They spend their summers in the upper reservoir and overwinter in the deeper Pennsylvania portion of the reservoir.

The stocking of paddlefish in the Allegany Reservoir has been successful. Stocked fish have survived well and grown rapidly. As paddlefish in the reservoir become sexually mature, it is hoped that natural reproduction will eventually be sufficient to maintain a population of the fish in the Upper Allegany River system and reduce or eliminate the need for additional stocking.

Lake sturgeon

A lake sturgeon caught during monitoring sampling.

The lake sturgeon is one of New York’s largest freshwater fish. Mature adults average between 3-5 feet in length and 10-80 pounds in weight, but can occasionally grow larger than 7 feet and 300 pounds. Lake sturgeon are primitive in appearance, with a torpedo-shaped body that is covered with five rows of bony plates—one on top and two rows along each side. They have a sharp, cone-shaped snout with four smooth barbels on their undersides. Lake sturgeon are one of the longest-lived and slowest maturing freshwater fish species. Female lake sturgeon do not reach sexual maturity for 14-23 years and may live up to 80 years or more. Males reach sexual maturity at 8-19 years and can live for 55 years. They prefer large water bodies and feed on a variety of bottom dwelling organisms, including insects, worms and mollusks.

Lake sturgeon live in waters from Hudson Bay in Canada to the lower Mississippi River Valley in the U.S. In New York, they occur in the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Riverdrainages, where they were historically abundant and even supported commercial fisheries. However, by the early 20th Century overharvest and habitat degradation resulted in drastic population declines. Severely depleted stocks ultimately led to the closure of the state’s lake sturgeon fishery in 1976. In 1983, they were listed as a threatened Species in New York State.

Lake sturgeon is considered a priority species for recovery in New York State, and the goal is to establish self-sustaining populations in at least eight waters. A stocking program was initiated in the mid-1990s to enhance or establish populations in their native range. From 1995-2004, restoration stockings were conducted in Black, Oneida, and Cayuga lakes and the Oswegatchie, St. Regis, and Genesee rivers.

Subsequent monitoring has determined good survival and growth of stocked fish in several of these waters. It is hoped that once these fish become sexually mature, they will be able to sustain their population through natural reproduction. Current research and management is focused on re-establishing a stocking program, assessing the habitat quality of waters where sturgeon restoration is planned or underway, and examining the genetic diversity and reproductive success of stocked populations.

The future

The future is bright for the reestablishment of both lake sturgeon and paddlefish in at least a portion of their former native range in New York State. Stocked fish have flourished in the waters in which they have been introduced and it is hoped that once these populations mature they will be able to sustain themselves through natural reproduction.

Other Species Being Restored:

Paddlefish and lake sturgeon are not the only rare fish species New York is trying to restore. Here are some others:

Round whitefish: The goal is to establish and maintain 10 naturally reproducing populations in protected waters.

Longear sunfish: The goal is to preserve and protect the current naturally reproducing population and re-establish at least three more naturally reproducing populations.

Gilt darter: The goal is to establish a naturally reproducing population.

Deepwater cisco: The goal is to establish a self-sustaining population of one or more species of deepwater ciscoes in Lake Ontario.

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