Great Lakes Sustainable Recreational and Commercial Fisheries
History of the Lower Great Lakes Sportfishery

New York’s Great Lakes region consists of Lakes Ontario and Erie, their tributaries and the St. Lawrence and Niagara Rivers.  Lakes Erie and Ontario boast some of the most successful ecological and economic comebacks in the modern history of the Great Lakes. From the ashes of ecological disasters created from almost 150 years of commercial overfishing, wiping out of many native fish species, habitat destruction, excessive nutrient inputs, toxic contamination and exotic species introductions, two of the preeminent sportfisheries in the world have been established.

Anglers from all over the world come to fish in open waters of Lake Ontario and in the numerous tributaries and streams primarily for trophy-sized trout and salmon, smallmouth bass and panfish. Among the Great Lakes, Lake Ontario boasts record sizes for Coho (33.4 pounds – also a world record!) and chinook salmon (47.8 pounds).  Lake Ontario angling records for other species are a 39-pound. lake trout, 33-pound. brown trout, 26-pound rainbow trout and a 24-pound Atlantic salmon – all very respectable sizes. Lake Erie anglers enjoy one of the best walleye, yellow perch and smallmouth bass fisheries in the world. Excellent angling opportunities also exist for rainbow trout in the open lake waters and tributaries.

Because most of New York State's Great Lakes shoreline is along Lake Ontario, the bulk of New York Sea Grant’s extension and research activities in maintaining coastal fisheries have been targeted towards the smaller but more economically important lake. This summary will feature some successful examples of Sea Grant efforts in Lake Ontario.

The Lake Ontario success story has been written during the course of over three decades starting when the first experimental stocking of Coho salmon began in 1968. Stocking was initiated to control unregulated and nuisance populations of introduced species such as alewife and smelt. As effective control programs for the predatory sea lamprey began in the early 1970s, phosphorus abatement was initiated, reductions in toxic contamination were recorded and improvements in the hatchery system took hold. In addition, stocking of other species of trout and salmon such as Chinook salmon, brown trout, rainbow trout/steelhead and Atlantic salmon increased. Stocking numbers eventually peaked at eight  million fish per year by the early 1980s. The sportfishery developed and expanded to become a multi-million dollar industry.

History has written that all fisheries go through a process of boom and bust resulting from environmental changes, saturation of anglers, and economic changes. Lake Ontario is no exception. By the mid-1980s target nutrient levels had been reached, stabilizing the lake's fertility. The sportfishery in terms of angler success peaked in the late 1980s to early 1990s. Numbers of charterboat captains on the lake exceeded 700 during that period.

The mid to late 1990s witnessed a decline in the sportfishery in terms of angler success and economic revenues generated by the fishery. Numbers of charterboat operators had also declined to less than 400 by this time. The reasons for the overall fishery decline are unclear but may be a combination of the lower fertility of the lake from phosphorus reductions altering the lake food web. This effect was probably combined with the presence of the introduced zebra mussels, which were taking food energy away from the open waters and redirecting it to the lake bottom. Numbers of alewives (the major food fish for predatory fish) declined from lower food supply and from heavy stocking of trout and salmon. Questions of the future fisheries sustainability were raised by fisheries managers and researchers, prompting review of the fisheries management and an intensive public consultation process. As a result, stocking reductions were implemented in the mid-1990s.

Changes in New York’s Great Lakes fisheries led to declines in angler activity and in catch rates in the region. Angler effort in New York waters of the Great Lakes peaked in the late 1980s to early 1990s, reaching an estimated 2.6 million days in 1988 for Lake Ontario and 0.9 million for Lake Erie. In 1988, the net economic value of New York’s Great Lakes fisheries was estimated at almost $91.7 million (adjusted to 1996 dollars; Connelly, Brown, and Knuth 1996). By 1996, the estimated net economic value of New York’s Great Lakes sportfisheries had declined approximately 31 percent to $62.9 million, while angler effort had decreased to an estimated 2.1 million days on Lake Ontario and 0.6 million on Lake Erie (Connelly, Brown, and Knuth 1996). Declines in the number of charter boat businesses also occurred; the 563 charter boat businesses existing in New York’s Great Lakes Region in 1990 declined to an estimated 400 businesses by 1994 (Kuehn and Dawson 1996). The reasons for the decline in angler effort in these fisheries appear to be related to several factors. These include a poor economy in the northeastern United States in the mid-1990s, which led to a reduction in  recreational travel and an increase in negative media coverage concerning the issues of fish contaminants, zebra mussels, cormorants, fish stocking and the lower fertility of the lakes caused by phosphorus reductions combined with the presence of the zebra mussels.

With so many communities along the Lake Ontario shoreline dependent on economic revenues generated from sportfishing-related businesses, information on socioeconomic trends is critically important to these small business owners so as to better manage, market and promote their businesses. New York Sea Grant has occupied a prominent role in the compilation of sportfisheries socioeconomic information through sponsored research and extension activities. New York Sea Grant has developed and disseminated educational materials that have been effective in helping these entrepreneurs adapt their business strategies to information based on sportfishing and socioeconomic trends and to make better business management decisions. For example, information based on fisheries trends can help stakeholders better anticipate changes in marketing and promotional emphasis in offshore versus inshore fisheries, bait and tackle choices, angling techniques and target species sought.

Resource managers and small business owners must be able to adapt to various challenges that impinge upon the lake and influence the complex dynamics of the fisheries. One issue that has emerged as an immediate and serious challenge to the integrity of the Lake Ontario sportfishery that New York Sea Grant has worked to maintain is the double-crested cormorant, a voracious fish-eating bird introduced into the Lake Ontario system during the 1920s. After an initial cormorant population expansion, cormorants declined dramatically from the 1950s to the 1960s due to their poor reproduction caused by their diet of contaminated fish. As contaminant burdens fell during the inception of the lake’s clean-up, and the cormorant's federally protected status, cormorant populations increased in the eastern basin of the lake during the late 1970s and began to skyrocket in the mid-1980s. During this time, anglers complained about reduced angling success for smallmouth bass and blamed the cormorant for the poorer bass fishery in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario, where the fishery is a significant source of economic revenues to local communities. 

The cormorant issue has become the most volatile and polarizing issue to confront the public stakeholders and resource managers in the modern history of the Lake Ontario sportfisheries. Although state and federal management agencies were aware of the problem, the ability to respond to the public outcry was delayed by the protected status of the bird, jurisdictional discussions and lack of hard scientific data on the impacts of the bird’s feeding habits. Polarity increased due to the public’s perception of agency inaction or lack of concern. The polarity led to several, illegal cormorant killings that have attracted international attention.

Data from New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) also confirmed the anglers' suspicions, in part, showing progressive reductions in bass survival that coincided with the cormorant population increase. The data revealed that mortality of vulnerable sizes of smallmouth bass increased by almost six fold. Other data reveal that cormorants can consume up to a 12-inch bass.

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