Salmon of the St. Lawrence Lakes

Salmon of the St. Lawrence Lakes by Ted Williams “Landlocks” weren’t always those slender, dainty fish that snatch Gray Ghosts from prop wash or bend alder reflections as they sip dry flies. The extinct races of Atlantic salmon that inhabited Lakes Ontario, Cayuga, Onondaga, Seneca, Champlain, Memphremagog, and other sprawling waters that feed the St. Lawrence River were huge, some approaching 50 pounds. Technically, they were not landlocked because they had access to the sea, though it’s doubtful that many took advantage of it. A few probably migrated in reverse, running downstream and then up the big tributaries of the St. Lawrence where they spawned alongside and maybe with sea-runs. The Salmon River, collected by Lake Ontario at Pulaski, New York, was named for Atlantic salmon -- not, as is commonly supposed, the chinooks and cohos that darken it each fall. In 1884 the bulletin of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries noted the following catch from the river: “In October, 1836, two men took two hundred and thirty salmon between 8 p.m. and 12, with spears and fire-jacks, and after 12 til morning two other men in the same skiff took two hundred odd, the average weight of the entire lot [was] fourteen and three-quarters pounds.” In 1892 the same publication filed this report: "It was nothing uncommon for teams fording the rivers and creeks at night to kill salmon with their hoofs. An older settler living in the town of Hannibal told Mr. Ingersoll that one night while driving across Three-Mile Creek the salmon ran against his horses' feet in such large numbers that the horses took fright and plunged through the water, killing one large salmon outright and injuring two others so that they were captured. The farmers living near the smaller creeks easily supplied their families with salmon caught by means of pitchforks.” Restoration with a mixture of races from Maine is underway. Whether or not it succeeds in any significant way depends on the ability of Atlantic salmon advocates to do three things: 1. get over their saltwater fixation; 2. dispel the popular superstition -- advanced by the charter industry -- that Atlantic salmon in Lake Ontario are part of an international plot to do away with the mass hatchery production of Pacific salmonids; and 3. convince the environmental community that Atlantic salmon are not just “sportfish” but a cog in an imperiled native ecosystem, part of earth’s biodiversity they keep saying we need to save. ******** Today the lakes are radically different environments than when they were prowled by wild, native salmon. At least 16 alien fish species are established in Lake Ontario alone. The nutrient-sucking zebra mussels that showed up in 1980 are short-circuiting energy flow. Here and in the upstream lakes the biggest threat to Atlantics isn’t sea lampreys but alewives. Alewives, which arrived in Lake Ontario via the Erie Canal or perhaps were introduced in the mistaken belief that they were shad, contain thiaminase, an enzyme that degrades vitamin B-1 (thiamine) in predator fish that eat them, thereby killing fry in the swim-up stage. In the late 19th century the few Lake Ontario salmon that made it past dams probably were already critically deficient in thiamine. The last wild fish was seen in 1898. It’s tempting to speculate what would have happened if, in the 1960s, Great Lakes fish managers had stocked Atlantic rather than Pacific salmon. But eggs weren’t available, and Atlantics are much harder to hatch and rear. This was an important consideration because the mission was not to create a sport fishery but to control the alewives which had taken over the lake and, in regular, massive dieoffs that never overtook recruitment, were fouling beaches and clogging water intakes. Today the alewife population is about 20 percent of what it was then. In addition to lampreys and alewives, Atlantic salmon must now contend with competition from hordes of cohos, chinooks, steelheads, browns and rainbows. The Salmon River system, for example, may be disgorging as many as a million chinook smolts a year, and when the adults surge back up in the fall they tend to run everything else out of the main channel. None of this means that Atlantic salmon habitat is anywhere near gone. It’s a big lake; and the tributaries keep getting cleaner. But neither the Province of Ontario nor the State of New York is making much of an effort at restoration. The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources stocks about 200,000 fry a year strictly for research purposes. It’s collecting data on competition with other salmonids and on how stream habitat such as substrates affect survivability. In the late 1980s and early 1990s the province stocked yearlings in the Wilmot River on the east side of Toronto and the Credit on the west, ceasing when returns proved consistently low compared to returns of Pacifics. But returns of Atlantics are always low compared to returns of Pacifics. According to Sandra Orsatti, manager of the ministry’s Lake Ontario Fishery Unit, an element of sportsmen feel threatened even by the tiny research program, “fearing a decrease in hatchery production of Pacific salmon.” There has been more activity and better results on the New York side. Thirteen years ago, in a courageous move for which it took considerable heat, the Department of Environmental Conservation quit stocking Pacific salmon in the Black River system (in the eastern basin) and switched to Atlantics. Managers were fed up with all the illegal snagging, and the Canadians were complaining about the chinooks that kept straying down the nearby St. Lawrence River and showing up in sea-run Atlantic Salmon streams. But Atlantic returns were low compared to returns of Pacifics. There was pressure from anglers to stock Pacifics, and the program was cancelled in 2001. Now chinooks are being stocked again, albeit in smaller numbers. Twenty years ago New York started stocking Atlantic smolts in three high-quality streams -- Little Sandy and Lindsey creeks (in the lake’s southeast corner), and Irondequoit Creek east of Rochester. “In June 1986 I caught 57 adult Atlantics in the Little Sandy,” says Fran Verdoliva, the department’s Salmon River Coordinator. “The biggest was 39 inches. There was natural reproduction -- 29 young of the year per surface acre. Not much compared with 1,500 to 7,000 steelhead, but the steelhead had been in the system for 20 years.” After only four years the state abandoned the program. The idea that one native Atlantic salmon might be worth a whole bunch of alien Pacifics just didn’t compute with the managers or the public. “Frankly,” says Verdoliva, “I think that for the average angler ‘a salmon is a salmon.’ Today we live in a world where fast and easy is the way to do it. Then there’s the conspiracy theory that we’re stocking these fish so we can phase out Pacifics. People really believe that. I had one guide tell me that he’d kill every Atlantic that came into the Salmon River because he wanted the program to fail.” Currently, the department stocks close to 100,000 smolts a year, mostly in the Salmon River system. While the fish face horrendous competition from Pacific salmonids, they have more going for them than you’d think or that some hatchery bureaucrats acknowledge. For one thing, Atlantics can tolerate warmer water than the other salmonids (although chinook smolts are out of the river their first spring before temperature is a factor). In summer, when parts of the mainstem are in the high 70s, only juvenile Atlantics are present there. That’s a real niche. In 1996 the federal government relicensed the river’s hydro plants, requiring minimum flows that induced the state to stock Atlantics. The good water conditions allowed the chinook population to explode but also gave the Atlantics -- with their big fins -- a home-court advantage in the new riffles and fast water. “There has been a lot of talk that Atlantics can’t compete with steelhead and Pacific salmon,” Verdoliva says. “Well, we’ve been doing studies in the tribs, and that’s just not true.” When the first adult Atlantics showed up in the summer of 1998 Verdoliva caught seven eight- to ten-pounders in one evening on a traditional Atlantic salmon fly called an Ackroyd. Since then fish up to 25 pounds have been caught. In 2001 Verdoliva saw 12 Atlantics up to 18 pounds at fish-cleaning stations being sliced up with cohos and chinooks by anglers who didn’t know what they had. Oak Orchard Creek, midway between Rochester and the Niagara River, is also being stocked. There’s scant data on returns, but a local flyshop owner claims he saw 35 adults brought in last fall and estimates that about 200 were caught -- a dubious statistic because they’re mixed in with big browns. Upstream from Lake Ontario good numbers of stocked salmon are present in Cayuga and Seneca Lakes (along with lampreys and alewives), but there’s no reproduction. Onondaga is too polluted for salmonids. During the winter of 2002-2003 at least six Atlantics were caught through the ice in Oneida Lake thanks to past stockings by the Atlantic Salmon Fish Creek Club, whose mission is restoring the species to Fish Creek and the Oswego River system. The strategy is first to show that it’s possible, then stoke state, federal and public enthusiasm. In March 2003 the club obtained 15,000 eyed eggs that, at this writing, are being incubated at Carpenters Brook Fish Hatchery in Elbridge, NY. The fact that not a single Atlantic was ever seen in the Niagara River above the falls or in the upper Great Lakes confounded early settlers, which also explains why they were shocked when the fish stopped coming up Lake Ontario tributaries they’d dammed. But, while salmon weren’t native in the upper Great Lakes, establishing them there is no different than extending ocean runs by providing fish passage around waterfalls. Atlantics have been stocked in all the upper lakes but never with any sustained effort and never, until now, with any noticeable result. In 1987, however, Lake Superior State University, in cooperation with the Michigan Department of Natural Resources, began releasing smolts in the St. Marys river at Sault Ste. Marie. The fish travel 60 miles downstream into Lake Huron where they gain weight quickly. Now 20-pounders are returning; and, while the run isn’t big, the fishing in riffles and powerhouse outfalls is better than on lots of Canadian streams. Last year anglers voluntarily turned in 180 fish to the lab. Apparently, there’s some reproduction because smolts are fin-clipped, and now and then an adult shows up with all fins intact. ******** The spectacular success story was (and soon will be again) Lake Champlain. The first serious fish survey -- by New York in 1929 -- revealed that salmon had been extirpated. Dams had the most to do with it, but sea lampreys probably helped. Sea lampreys, it now turns out, are native to Lakes Ontario and Champlain, but not one of the historical accounts of salmon or lake trout catches mentions a fish bearing a circular wound. So the native races of salmonids (now extinct) apparently had adapted to the presence of sea lampreys. Sporadic efforts were made to rehabilitate -- with hatchery strains -- salmon runs in the Champlain Basin, but it wasn’t until 1973 that New York, Vermont and the Fish and Wildlife Service engaged in serious, coordinated stocking. Very quickly it became apparent that something was limiting the fish. They’d grow fast and then, at a certain size, disappear. All evidence pointed to sea lampreys, so in 1985 a chemical control program was proposed. It wasn’t rocket science. After all, the main poison of choice -- TFM, the stuff that allowed lake trout restoration in Lake Superior and Pacific salmonid management in all the Great Lakes -- was 1950s technology. TFM, applied to spawning streams, is pretty benign and pretty selective, though hard on aquatic salamanders like mudpuppies. Still, federal law required a full-blown Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), a process the participants managed to drag out for five years. When the EIS was finally hatched, in 1990, it was only good for eight years. However, from 1990 to 1997 New York and Vermont knocked Champlain’s lampreys from hell to breakfast, and the salmon population took off. “Some of the guys were fishing the Ausable, Boquet and Saranac instead of going up to the Gaspe,” says New York’s regional fisheries manager Larry Nashett. “Up there they might spend a lot of time and money and catch one fish. Here, on good days, they were taking three-fish limits.” The better salmon were seven or eight pounds. There was even some natural reproduction. But when the EIS expired in 1997, the dawdling and red tape started all over again with a “supplemental EIS.” Coordinated control by New York and Vermont didn’t resume until 2002. But now there’s another danger -- alewives. They’ve shown up on the Vermont side in Lake St. Catherine, which drains into Champlain. Biologists suspect that they were unleashed by bass fishermen who had been watching too many ESPN shows about how alewives fatten largemouths in southern impoundments. The Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife is looking at ways of containing the alewives and has even talked about trying to eliminate them from the system. So far they haven’t been seen in Lake Champlain. Sportsmen are solidly behind Champlain salmon restoration. “Anglers favored salmon so strongly that lake trout took most of the hit when we had to trim stocking by 40 percent to protect the smelt forage base,” reports Vermont’s district fisheries biologist Brian Chipman. But the environmental community seems clueless that the salmon program is not just about fish for anglers or that tradeoffs, such as limited mudpuppy mortality, are part of the cost of restoring native ecosystems. On October 30, 2001, for example, the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, Audubon Vermont, and Sylvia Knight (a private citizen) challenged the supplemental EIS in federal district court, claiming that it inadequately protected mudpuppies and rare mussels. Mudpuppies, however, bounce back and mussels are little affected. On September 6, 2002 the judge upheld the supplemental EIS. The plaintiffs are being unfairly and stupidly mocked by local anglers for their concern about mudpuppies and mussels. Still, that commendable concern appears not to extend to other parts of Champlain’s native ecosystem such as Atlantic salmon. In announcing its lawsuit Vermont PIRG went so far as to quote an alleged authority from academia who proclaimed that Atlantics were being stocked “strictly for sport fishing.” Currently both states release 270,000 smolts a year. A portion of these are the result of fry stocking (biologists do the arithmetic based on the assumption that five percent of the fry make it to smolthood). As with sea-run restoration, fry stocking has great potential and produces adults indistinguishable from wild ones. Recently Vermont managers obtained stock from Maine’s Sebago Lake. They’d been relying on fish from Maine’s West Grand Lake, which evolved to migrate downstream. “We think we’ve been losing a lot of our salmon down the Richelieu River,” says Chipman. “We have good returns of salmon that have gone through one lake year, but then they kind of disappear.” East of Champlain, the sea-run-size salmon of the Clyde River, which feeds Lake Memphremagog, had attracted anglers from all over the world until construction of Newport No. 11 dam in 1957 obliterated the run. But the dam breached in 1994 and was removed two years later. Now the salmon in the lamprey-free, alewife-free river and lake are doing splendidly. Even if managers do all the right things in the big lakes that feed the St. Lawrence, Atlantic salmon aren’t going to be spooking horses in your lifetime. And even in Champlain and Memphremagog natural reproduction by itself isn’t going to sustain populations. It’s true, as environmental groups have pointed out, that the salmon being stocked are not original strains. Those strains are extinct. But it’s important to have the next closest thing (Maine strains) swimming, and to some extent breeding, in these lakes -- just as it’s important to have introduced tundra and Canadian anatum peregrine falcons flying and nesting in the old range of America’s extinct strain of eastern peregrine. To have the chance to catch an Atlantic salmon in these lakes and their tributaries, to see one, or just to know they’re out there should matter to Americans and Canadians -- whether they fish or not. These fish can never be what they were, but they can at least be there, a little piece of something beautiful, part of our history and of earth’s. # This piece appeared in the Atlantic Salmon Journal