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Fisheries Management on Lake Champlain

Fishing Regulations Icon New York Fishing

Fisheries Management on Lake Champlain

By Lance Durfey

For most of its length, Lake Champlain defines the border between New York and Vermont. Because fish don’t care about borders, the two states and the US Fish and Wildlife Service formed the Lake Champlain Fish and Wildlife Management Cooperative in 1972 to manage the lake’s fishery. In addition, representatives from Sea Grant, the Province of Quebec, the Vermont Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Unit, the University of Vermont and other universities are frequently involved in the Cooperative’s activities and in research and management on Lake Champlain. Some current fishery management issues worked on jointly include stocking, sea lamprey control, creel surveys, species and habitat restoration, and monitoring and assessing the major sportfish and primary forage fish in the lake.

Sampling Fish Populations

Before developing management plans, biologists use fishery and creel surveys to determine the status of the existing fish population. On Champlain, fishery surveys can be conducted with a variety of sampling gear–from gill nets to trap nets to trawls or electrofishing. The methods used are based on the species being targeted, the size or age of the fish, and the time of year. For instance, stream electrofishing is used on tributaries to sample immature landlocked salmon before they descend to the lake. Boat electrofishing and trap netting are used in the lake to sample older salmon and lake trout during the fall. Sampling can help answer questions about the relative abundance of a species, growth rates and condition factors, or whether a management technique has been effective. Another important reason to sample fish in Lake Champlain is to monitor sea lamprey wounding rates. This information helps assess the impact that sea lamprey predation is having on the lake’s fish populations and provides a measure of how effective the sea lamprey control program is.

Creel surveys help monitor the fishery in the lake and its tributaries. A creel survey involves counting anglers and interviewing them to estimate their catch and harvest, the hours they spent fishing and the overall characteristics of the fishery.

In addition, angler reports help monitor fish populations. A trout and salmon angler diary program monitors the cold-water fishery, and bass populations are monitored in part by tracking the sizes of the bass recorded in some of the key tournaments held on the lake every year. A radio-telemetry study was also done to help gain insight into Lake Champlain bass tournaments and their potential impacts on bass populations.

Stocking

Prior to the 1800s, native Atlantic salmon and lake trout were abundant in Lake Champlain. Early settlers reported such abundant salmon runs in the tributaries that “salmon were harvested by the wagon load with pitchforks.” While not so graphic, historical accounts of large and plentiful lake trout were reported as well. However, by the mid-1800s, over fishing, pollution and damming of tributaries had eliminated native salmon from Lake Champlain, and lake trout disappeared from the lake by 1900.

Restoration of lake trout and landlocked Atlantic salmon in Lake Champlain are being attempted through a stocking program. Every year, about 230,000 landlocked salmon and 80,000 lake trout are stocked. In addition, 50,000 rainbow (steelhead) and 40,000 brown trout are stocked annually to help diversify the fishery. The salmon and trout stocked in Lake Champlain are generally reared in NY and VT state hatcheries or the federal Eisenhower National Fish Hatchery. Care is taken to coordinate stocking numbers so that the prey base in the lake is not overwhelmed by too many predators.

In order to create a fall spawning run on the Boquet, Ausable and Saranac rivers, landlocked salmon fry are stocked in them far upstream. These fish live in the rivers for two years before descending to Lake Champlain as smolts. This process assures that when they are ready to spawn, most will try to return to their home (stocked) river, thus generating a good fall fishery.

In addition to stocking trout and salmon, the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife works with the Lake Champlain Walleye Association to rear and stock walleye into Lake Champlain.

Landlocked salmon fry are stocked far upstream to help create a fall spawning run on Lake Champlain tributaries.

Sea Lamprey Control

Extensive studies and angler experience have proved that unless the sea lamprey population in Lake Champlain is reduced, salmon and lake trout populations cannot be restored. Sea lamprey attach themselves to a trout or salmon, drill a hole in the fish’s skin, and feed on its bodily fluids, injuring and often killing the host fish.

In 2002, the current long-term lamprey control program was implemented using chemical treatments, trapping, physical barriers and other methods of control. The plan requires development of sea lamprey control strategies specific to each location, using one or more of the control measures. This ensures effective control of sea lamprey populations with minimal environmental impacts. The control program’s goals are to reduce sea lamprey impacts on the lake’s fishery and to restore balance to the ecosystem.

The most significant and effective form of control has been the treatment of streams and deltas with chemical lampricides. Lampricides target larval sea lamprey, killing them before they can transform into their parasitic adult form, while having minimal impact on other aquatic life. Because larval sea lamprey typically live in streams or deltas for four years, lampricide treatments need occur only every four years in a specific body of water.

Traps are also used to capture adult sea lamprey before they can spawn. Unfortunately, upstream escapement of even a small number of adults can repopulate available nursery habitat resulting in little or no reduction of sea lamprey produced in the stream. Only the smallest sea lamprey spawning streams with low numbers of spawning sea lamprey and high trap efficiency provide the most potential for control by adult trapping alone.

Barriers, including waterfalls and many dams, block sea lamprey from reaching spawning areas in tributaries. Two dams, one each in NY and VT, were repaired so they could act as lamprey barriers. In addition, a seasonally installed temporary barrier was built on Beaver Brook near Westport. This barrier was so successful in blocking access to spawning areas upstream that a scheduled chemical treatment was not needed. While not all barriers can replace the need for chemical treatments, we take advantage of those opportunities where they exist.

Temporary sea lamprey trap

Habitat Protection and Restoration

Healthy fish populations in Lake Champlain need both clean water and intact, functional habitats. DEC works to protect both by using its Protection of Waters and Wetland permit programs to evaluate the impact of proposed construction on the lake, its wetlands and its stream banks. Development, especially roads and culverts, can create barriers between fish and their habitat. DEC works with state and local transportation agencies to install culverts and bridges with a greater capacity to handle large volumes of flood water and to allow fish to reach spawning areas. DEC also works with hydroelectric operators to lessen the impacts from hydroelectric stations. Hydroelectric plants can sometimes kill fish as they pass through the turbines used to produce electricity, and hydroelectric dams can prevent upstream spawning migration of fish.

DEC staff are also developing plans to install a fish ladder on Imperial Dam on the Saranac River in Plattsburgh. This ladder will provide spawning landlocked salmon with access to approximately nine miles of spawning and nursery habitat. In addition, DEC was also involved in the recent removal of a dam on the Boquet River in Willsboro. A dam had been at this site for 200 years, and its removal has opened up the river to Wadhams Falls, about 15 miles upstream.

Invasive Species

As with all waters, invasive species are a major concern on Lake Champlain. Unfortunately, the lake is already home to 50 known aquatic invasive species, including spiny water flea and zebra mussels. Many more invasives are threatening to enter from nearby waterways, especially the Hudson River, which is connected to Lake Champlain via the Champlain-Hudson canal. Consequently, the feasibility of a hydrologic barrier in the canal to prevent movement of aquatic plants and animals between the Champlain and Hudson watersheds is being investigated. This long-term solution would prevent the canal system from serving as a vector for aquatic invasive species moving in or out of Lake Champlain. Unfortunately, once introduced to a water body, aquatic invasive species have the potential to infest other inland water bodies when boaters inadvertently transport them. That’s why it’s critical to prevent their spread. DEC encourages all anglers to follow recommendations to prevent the spread of aquatic invasive species (page 2). It’s not only the right thing to do, it’s the law.

Lance Durfey is the Regional Fisheries Manager in DEC Region 5.

Sea lamprey control efforts have helped bring back big landlocked salmon like this one caught in 2016.