Sea Grant Partners Up for 2018 State of Lake Erie Meeting
Great Lakes Coastal Youth Education - News

(At Left) New York Sea Grant's Helen Domske. (At Right) James Markham with NYSDEC talks about some of the positive changes that are being made for the trout fishing starting in 2018. Lake Erie tributary fishing for trout is some of the best in North America. Credit: Buffalo News

On April 12th, New York Sea Grant’s Helen Domske presented 2018's State of Lake Erie meeting at Southtowns Walleye Association of WNY clubhouse in Hamburg, NY.

The free public meeting was held in partnership with the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) and in cooperation with Assemblyman Sean M. Ryan and the Southtowns fishing club.

Featured presentations this year included Tom MacDougall, a representative from the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry, who provided an update on Lake Erie Management from a Canadian perspective.

NYSG's Great Lakes Fisheries & Ecosystem Health Specialist Jesse Lepak gave a talk on yellow perch, catch-and-release and barotrauma.

Jason Robinson and Jim Markham, NYSDEC aquatic biologists with the Lake Erie Unit, presented their updated fisheries data on the warm and cold water fish communities, respectively. After a record year for walleye catch rates last year, 2018 is setting itself up to be even better.

Below are two accounts from attendees of the event. The first one is from Buffalo News reporter Bill Hilts Jr. The second is from contributing writer Mike Bleech.

Banner year projected for Lake Erie’s warm- and cold-water fisheries

By Bill Hilts Jr., Buffalo News

Buffalo, NY, April 18, 2018 - “The best is yet to come, and won’t that be fine, You think you’ve seen the sun, but you ain’t seen it shine.” – Frank Sinatra, “Best is Yet to Come”

Leave it to old “blue eyes” to help us convey what came out of the State of Lake Erie meeting held last week courtesy Helen Domske and NY Sea Grant at the Southtowns Walleye Association’s clubhouse in Hamburg. Anglers, get your rods and reels ready … the best is yet to come.

It’s hard to believe that fishing could be any better than it was last year as far as walleye fishing. According to the Lake Erie Unit’s open lake creel census in 2017, the walleye catch rate was the best in the 30-year history of the survey. A catch of nearly 120,000 walleyes and a harvest of 70,000 fish translated into a catch rate of roughly .5 walleye per angler hour. The next best year was 2014, when walleye chasers caught .32 fish per hour. And with the way things are looking for this year, catch rates could improve yet again if anglers get a little help from Mother Nature in the weather department.

Walleye estimates overall for 2018 are now slightly above the 41 million level for the western and central basins of the lake. These are the prime spawning areas that fisheries' managers concern themselves with most. That’s a lot of fried fish fillets. Some of you loyal readers might recall the 2017 number as being 56 million fish but that was recently adjusted to accommodate for commercial and recreational harvests and any natural die-offs that might occur in the lake. This is nothing unusual according to Dr. Jason Robinson, aquatic biologist with the Department of Environmental Conservation’s (DEC) Lake Erie Unit.

Dr. Robinson shared a new video with the group that showcased the movement of walleyes around the lake in conjunction with the acoustic telemetry study underway. A significant number of walleyes make the trek from the western basin to the eastern basin every year. Every year brings them more important research.

Dr. Jason Robinson with DEC accepts his Conservationist of the Year award from Southtowns Walleye Association’s Jim Skoczylas, first vice president with the club. Credit: Buffalo News

Yellow perch populations are also calling out to anglers in 2018. Last year offered up both good and bad news for fishermen and women. Overall effort was down 66 percent and the catch rate was “only” 1.62 fish per hour – nearly two whole fish below the record rate in 2014. However, that 1.62 fish per hour was still better than the time series average of 1.43 fish per hour and the mean length for the 43,000 perch that were harvested last year was 11 inches  – among the biggest in the time series.

“We have had some great year classes of fish,” said Dr. Robinson. “The 2016 year classes of perch and walleye were both exceptional.  They will be 2 years old in 2018. We don’t formally assess walleye hatches until the following year at age 1.  However, we did capture eight age 0 walleye in 2017.  If we capture any age 0 walleye we consider it a very good sign.”

“Like walleye, the yellow perch age-0 index does not have a strong correlation with the eventual year class strength.  Sometimes relatively low catches of age 0 perch will result in a large year class and vice versa.  The 2017 age-0 perch index was slightly above average but I cannot say with confidence if that will ultimately translate into a strong or weak 2017 year class until the 2018 survey.  We are chiefly concerned with age groups that will soon be entering the fishery.  Walleye enter the fishery at age 2 (2016 hatch) and perch enter at age 3 (2015 hatch).”

The best news for perch fishers is that we now have three strong year classes that have been documented for 2014-2016 and we should experience a marked improvement this spring. Last fall’s September survey netting saw the highest juvenile catch rate (age 1 and age 2) fish ever and total numbers of perch for all year classes produced the fourth-highest catch per net since they have been utilizing this research. Yes, the best is yet to come.

James Markham, aquatic biologist responsible for the cold-water fish communities within the Lake Erie Unit, also had some great things to pass along to the audience (estimated at some 200 fish-hungry attendees). The best news had to be for tributary trout anglers who were experiencing a resurgence of stream fish this year – perfect timing for a creel census that has been going on since September.

“The last creel study conducted in 2014-15 we were able to document a catch rate of .35 fish per hour,” said Markham. “While it’s not as high as the record year of .6 fish per hour, it still makes the Lake Erie tributaries one of the best trout fisheries in North America. We will probably see an uptick in catch rates from the current creel study.” The survey will end in mid-May.

DEC is also working on a Steelhead Stocking Strategy Study that should be completed in 2018. The agency is also working on tweaking the way it is doing business for trout anglers. For example, starting in 2018, DEC will no longer be stocking brown trout in Lake Erie. Instead, those fish will be replaced with domestic rainbows. The brown trout performed poorly. Markham felt that they would be better off stocking the same number of domestic rainbows to help bolster September and October streams runs of trout.

Markham covered a wide variety of topics, all designed to improve the quality and quantity of trout in the streams. For example, he spoke about an emigration study underway in Chautauqua Creek to determine the best trout stocking practices for survival and fish returns. He discussed the Scoby Dam project in Springville and gave everyone an update on what was happening with this Cattaraugus Creek project.

The lake trout was also discussed as part of a federal program designed to create self-sustaining populations in the Great Lakes. While they have not seen any natural recruitment in the nearly four decades that they’ve been stocked, biologists have started an acoustic telemetry study to determine laker movements. If they can figure out spawning sites where these fish once thrived, they might be able to help Mother Nature along.

There were two other speakers worthy of expanded coverage. One was Tom MacDougall with the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry’s Lake Erie Management Unit. The other was Dr. Jesse Lepak with NY Sea Grant talking about catch-and-release and barotrauma with fish after they are brought in from deep water. Both will make an interesting column. Is the best yet to come? We’ll have to wait and see.

Lake Erie experts reveal insights

— By Mike Bleech, Contributing writer for

Lake Erie anglers have good reason to be optimistic for 2018 and the next few years as game fish populations are in good shape.

Buffalo, NY, April 22, 2018 - The 45th annual State of Lake Erie presentation was seen by a large crowd at the Southtowns Walleye Association club house at Hamburg, New York, on April 12. A highlight of the evening was an Ontario biologist’s presentation, something which has taken a few years to get accomplished.

Lake Erie anglers have good reason to be optimistic for 2018 and the next few years. Game fish populations are in good shape. Baitfish populations are not, but it might be premature to worry about this.

The 45th annual State of the Lake meeting was held April 10 at the Southtowns Walleye Association clubhouse at Hamburg, New York. Speakers were Tom MacDougall, a Rehabilitation Ecologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources Fisheries; Jim Markham, an aquatic biologist for the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation; Dr. Jason Robinson, an Aquatic Biologist for the New York State Department of Conservation; and Dr. Jesse Lepak, Great Lakes Fisheries and Ecosystem Specialist for New York Sea Grant.

Lepak spoke about barotrauma, a condition often suffered by walleye and yellow perch after they are pulled from deep water by anglers. Signs of this are popped eyes and distended stomachs, which may protrude from the mouth or gills. This is caused by expansion of the air bladder when the fish is hauled from deep water to the surface. When one of these fish are hauled from a depth of 60 feet to the surface, the air bladder triples in size. Then when undersized fish are released, they can not get back down to depth.

So anglers should understand a little fish anatomy before “fizzing” them. Four methods for anglers to decrease mortality in these fish were discussed.

Anglers usually think about venting, also termed fizzing, first. With this method, a sharp object is used to prick a hole in the air bladder. There are a couple of problems with this method. It is not know for certain how long a fish will live after being fizzed. But at the least they do swim away. Probably more of the fish die by being improperly fizzed. The thing that protrudes out the mouth or gills is not the air bladder, it is the stomach. This should not be punctured.

Anglers also try plunging fish headfirst into the water to give them a boost. Some anglers try to revive the fish. There is no proof that either of these methods is successful.

Retrieving a fish more slowly to the surface has potential for helping the fish, but it is not practical since many fish may be lost this way.

Descending is the method Lepak prefers. This uses something so simple as a milk carton to transport released fish to the desired depth, then release it. A major problem with this method is that it is time consuming. Also, anglers probably will have to construct their own equipment.

MacDougall spoke from the Ontario perspective on Lake Erie fisheries. The primary difference between the U.S. side of the lake and the Ontario side is that commercial fishing is predominant in Ontario water. Ontario Fisheries focuses on maintaining biodiversity and supporting a stable economy based on a self-sustaining fishery.

“We have a sustainable level that we think allows for the population to maintain itself,” MacDougall said.

Ontario monitors angler catches primarily by creel surveys. Commercial fishermen file reports, some are checked at ports, and they have air support which helps to keep commercial fishing boats in an approved area of the lake.

Mostly due to the Ontario commercial fishermen, Lake Erie is the largest freshwater fishery in North America. In Lake Erie, recreational anglers catch about 1 million walleye annually. Commercial fishermen catch 27½ million pounds per year.

The Ontario commercial fishery on Lake Erie employees 1,100 people.

Of the Ontario sport fishing catch, 76 percent is yellow perch while 15 percent is walleye.

The Ontario commercial catch is worth $37 million annually. The largest segment of the catch, 40 percent, is smelt. Walleye make up 18 percent.

This is only about half of what presenters for the evening spoke about. We will get back to that in a column in the not-too-distant future.

More Info: New York Sea Grant

New York Sea Grant (NYSG), a cooperative program of Cornell University and the State University of New York (SUNY), is one of 33 university-based programs under the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Sea Grant College Program.

Since 1971, NYSG has represented a statewide network of integrated research, education and extension services promoting coastal community economic vitality, environmental sustainability and citizen awareness and understanding about the State’s marine and Great Lakes resources.

Through NYSG’s efforts, the combined talents of university scientists and extension specialists help develop and transfer science-based information to many coastal user groups—businesses and industries, federal, state and local government decision-makers and agency managers, educators, the media and the interested public.

The program maintains Great Lakes offices at Cornell University, SUNY Buffalo, SUNY Oswego and the Wayne County Cooperative Extension office in Newark. In the State's marine waters, NYSG has offices at Stony Brook University in Long Island, Brooklyn College and Cornell Cooperative Extension in NYC and Kingston in the Hudson Valley.

For updates on Sea Grant activities: has RSS, Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube links. NYSG produces a monthly e-newsletter, "NOAA Sea Grant's Social Media Review," via its blog, Our program also offers a free e-list sign up via for its flagship publication, NY Coastlines/Currents, which is published quarterly.

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