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Jefferson County angler critiques DEC restriction on Lake Ontario bass fishing at Pulaski meeting

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PULASKI — Bass anglers have criticized the state Department of Environmental Conservation for continuing a policy enacted in 2006 that prevents preseason fishing for the species in part of the eastern basin of Lake Ontario.

The issue was broached Tuesday during a “State of Lake Ontario” fishery meeting at the DEC training facility in the village by Burnie V. Haney, chairman of the Jefferson County Sport Fishing Advisory Board. Mr. Haney aired his concerns during the meeting following a presentation that showed the smallmouth bass population is recovering after reaching its lowest levels from 2000 to 2004, because data show cormorants are no longer a threat.

A presentation at Tuesday’s meeting showed that DEC control methods to curb the double-crested cormorant population on the lake’s eastern basin — including oiling eggs hunting birds — have helped decrease predation of the birds on smallmouth bass over the past decade. Another positive factor has been that cormorants have shifted their attention away from smallmouth bass to round gobies, which now account for about 80 percent of their diet. A DEC study in 2000, by contrast, found that 54 percent of the diet of cormorants was attributed to warm-water fish, including smallmouth bass, perch and rock bass.

Historically, DEC had imposed a statewide closed season for smallmouth and largemouth bass from Dec. 1 through the third week of June; it amended that policy in 2006 by starting a statewide “catch and release” preseason during that same period. But because cormorant predation had caused the smallmouth bass population to dwindle in the north country, DEC allowed Region 6 to opt out of that policy by restricting preseason bass fishing in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario along the shore of Jefferson and St. Lawrence counties, and in the St. Lawrence River. That restriction is still in effect.

During DEC’s open fishing season for bass, from the third Saturday in June through Nov. 30, anglers are allowed to keep five fish per day. Fish must be at least 12 inches long to keep.

During a presentation on smallmouth bass at Tuesday’s meeting, DEC aquatic biologist Jana R. Lantry said the gradual drop in the cormorant population has decreased predation on smallmouth bass significantly.

“Plus, gobies came into the system,” Ms. Lantry said. “By 2004 and 2005, cormorants in the eastern basin had shifted their diet to predominantly round gobies. They’re opportunistic feeders and are going to eat what’s most abundant out there. So that also took some predation pressure off the bass.”

Mr. Haney, a Calcium resident, asked Ms. Lantry if DEC has a strategy for evaluating whether the ban on preseason bass fishing should be lifted.

“What’s the mark we’re trying to achieve, and is there any plan to supplement the population with stocking?” he asked. “In the eastern basin, we have no catch-and-release season for bass. That originally started back when we had the concern about cormorant predation, and the bass clubs supported it to get the population back where it should be. But now we’ve seen a consistent base for several years, and I get a lot of questions from all of the national bass association guys asking when the eastern basin will allow catch and release.”

Ms. Lantry, in response, said that DEC has no plans to stock smallmouth bass. But she said the smallmouth bass population is “still in recovery.”

“Until we start seeing any evidence of a strong year class moving up into the adult stock and causing increases, we kind of have to treat it as if it’s in recovery mode,” she said.

Mr. Haney replied, “We’ve been in recovery for about eight years now, and we’re not going to stock. We’re just looking at it. And your first report said that the pursuit of bass has declined greatly from anglers.”

An angler survey on the amount of fishing in the eastern basin of Lake Ontario is needed to evaluate the effect that fishermen have on the smallmouth bass population, Ms. Lantry said. But though DEC plans to conduct a survey eventually, it hasn’t made any immediate plans.

“We’ve been trying to do an eastern basin angler survey for a few years now, but unfortunately we’ve had to do a lot of trimming,” Ms. Lantry said.

Mr. Haney said that if DEC’s restriction on preseason bass fishing is lifted, it would be reasonable to assume anglers would spend anywhere from $35 to $59 per day in trip expenditures, according to a 2011 New York survey conducted by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.

Highlights from DEC’s “State of Lake Ontario” fishery meeting:
• Fish stocking in New York waters of Lake Ontario in 2013 included approximately 1.76 million Chinook salmon, 220,600 coho salmon, 627,000 rainbow trout, 331,000 brown trout.
• 128,000 Atlantic salmon, 522,800 lake trout and 133,200 walleye.
• Disease-related losses of brown trout at the DEC Rome hatchery in 2012 affected 2013 yearling stocking statewide, causing a 14 percent reduction in brown trout yearlings stocked into Lake Ontario, from 385,000 to 331,000.
• In the spring 2014, of 40,000 surplus yearling coho will be stocked (130,000 instead of 90,000).
• Fall of 2013 chinook egg collections exceeded targets, and survival of eggs and fry has been good.
• Approximately 155,000 surplus chinook salmon will be stocked this spring to compensate for coho losses.
• Stocking of lake trout in 2013 was above target levels.
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