Great Lakes, Great Stakes! Part 1. The rise and fall of fish species.

10 05 2011

Are the Great Lakes important? Should people outside of the region care about our Great Lakes?  The Institutes for Journalism and Natural Resources (IJNR) think so.

Last week, a group of American and Canadian journalists travelled around Lake Ontario on an IJNR fellowship.  Travelling on a bus rented from a Montreal hockey team, they started their journey canoeing down the Don River in Toronto. After the canoe trip, they continued along their route, stopping at various sites to meet experts and learn about environmental issues affecting Lake Ontario.

Frank Allen of IJNR invited me to join them halfway through their trip.  I met the journalists in Sackets Harbor in New York and spent a lovely evening talking about science communication and the journalist perspective.  The next day, inspired and energized by the discussions from the night before, I joined several journalists on a charter fishing boat captained by “Megabite”.  The goal for the day was to land some trout, but the heavens opened early.

IJNR Fellows fishing in the rain

IJNR Fellows fishing in the rain

Despite the downpour, it was a good trip. We went to a deep trench in Lake Ontario by an island where trout and salmon congregate at their preferred cold temperatures and caught many fish.  And throughout the day we talked extensively about the science and economics of the introduced fish.

IJNR fellows interviewing Captain "Megabite"

IJNR fellows interviewing Captain "Megabite"

Most trout and all salmon in Lake Ontario are not native. They have been stocked by state and provincial governments for several decades.  They are the cornerstone of a thriving multi-million dollar sportfish and recreational fishing industry around the lake.

Just as I wrote about Lake Erie, Lake Ontario is not the same lake it was 50 years ago.  Invasive species, especially round goby, now make up a high proportion of the trout and salmon diets. After meeting with the charter boat captains and New York biologists we discussed native, introduced and invasive species. The Sackets Harbor captains mentioned that the round goby had very probably revived their fishing businesses in a big way!

Trout caught by IJNR fellows for lunch!

We then drove over the Canadian border to meet with a group of people working on the endangered American eel.  The rain simply would not abate, and we had to huddle under a bridge by small river for shelter. This particular river is an important site for young eels and we were to see a demonstration of electro-fishing. My colleague, John Casselman and his graduate students spoke about their work with American eel, which has an amazingly intricate marine-freshwater lifecycle that is threatened by dams along the St. Lawrence Seaway.

In addition, John Rorabeck, an expert commercial fisherman, spoke about the historical importance of American eel to fishing industries. Unfortunately the boat was not working so we could not collect American eel, but the journalists got to listen to top-notch stories by two leading experts.  It was wonderful to listen to John R, especially as he truly has close ties to Lake Ontario and he had worked with one of my graduate students on the Rideau Lakes catching fish for our food web analyses.

Commercial fisherman John R speaking about American eel

Commercial fisherman John R speaking about American eel

By the end of the day the complexity of the lake was becoming very apparent. We had considered introduced fish species which were benefiting from an invasive fish species, the trout and the round goby. We also discussed a native species fast declining in the Great Lakes.  Lake Ontario is changing very rapidly… what will it be like in the future? Even the most knowledgeable scientists and fishermen are not sure.

Tomorrow:  Tilting at wind turbines.

Advertisements