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December 01, 2015     Post 68
A Fish Story

A Fish Story

As part of our video project we visited the New York State fish hatchery at Altmar last month. Our timing was good as a number of splendid big fish were hanging around the ladder up to the hatchery pools. We took some video and enjoyed watching them. These were all non native trout and salmon.

In the early 1970s New York began the stocking program that gave rise to a world class trophy fishery. Forty years have passed since then, and there have been ups and downs for the lake's “new” salmon. But they persist with some human help. Today's non-native stocked fish cope with nutritional deficiencies, blue green algae blooms, disease and other adversities. But they still ascend streams and rivers each fall and spring in an age old drive to sustain the life of their race. You can easily watch them do it at the Altmar hatchery.

Despite all the engineering and overt manipulation of nature, it's a marvel still to see a free swimming ten or twenty pound fish struggling up river against the ceaseless current. It's as if the very spirit of the water has taken form in this sleek streamlined living form.

The state stocks a half dozen species of salmon and trout in Lake Ontario. All but the lake trout home to streams to spawn. Young salmon “imprint” on their natal waters, a trait that makes it possible to draw them back to the hatchery they were born in.

Most west coast salmon spawn just once and then die. During the run, the hatchery workers collect and cut open several hundred fish and mix eggs and milt in batches. The fertilized eggs go into cold oxygenated water diverted from Beaverdam creek. After hatching, the young fish feed readily on commercial fish chow. Most are planted in streams or the lake the next spring when they are fingerling size. They grow quickly in the open lake mainly on a diet of alewives and other baitfish like the emerald shiner. Within two years many are ten to twenty pounds.

During the 1980s glory days of the fishery, more than 200 hundred thousand boat trips a season were made in search of forty pound king salmon or other open lake fish. In 1988 fishing derbies generated 6 million dollars in spending and every harbor seemed to have at least a couple charter boat operations.

These days the fishery attracts a lesser number of anglers to the lake. Perhaps the novelty has worn off. But it's still an active and economically important fishery. In 2007 angling for Lake Ontario fish contributed an estimated 114 million to the New York economy and it's likely the Canadian fishery generated at least an equal amount of cash.

There seems to be a general nationwide trend towards lower numbers of anglers. It probably has a lot to do with the general urbanization and detachment from nature that most suburban dwellers experience these days. How much exposure to nature can a kid get on a one acre lawn or a soccer field? This is a bit of a concern to a worry wart writer and lake watcher who does not fish.

Perhaps no one is more “engaged” with the lake and its web of life than the fisherman (fisher person?). His/her success at hooking a big fish depends on the overall health of the system and he/she is more likely to note ecological problems and perhaps demand they be attended to. The group Anglers For Clean Water is just one example.

A lack of anglers may not be a good thing for the lake's ecosystem. Can we start up a new hobby of fishing with Go Pros for the kids who only experience nature through videos?

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