By BILL HILTS, Jr.
Niagara Gazette — The International Joint Commission (between Canada and the United States) will be conducting a series of public hearings this coming week and the kick-off session will be tonight in Lockport from 6 to 9 p.m. Registration will open at 5:30 p.m. at Cornell Cooperative Extension Niagara, 4487 Lake Avenue (Route 78), Lockport. The focus will be in the IJC’s new Plan 2014, addressing how the Great Lakes will be managed regarding water levels.
Of utmost concern locally is how this will affect the boating industry, impacting not only boats coming in and out of the harbors of Wilson, Olcott and Point Breeze (and further east), but also the launch ramps and the operation of many of the marinas in those harbors. In addition, there has to be some serious concerns how this will affect the many tributaries along the shoreline of the south shore of Lake Ontario, a huge economic boon for the small communities that line the lakeshore during a time of year when there isn’t a lot going in the way of other tourism draws.
Let’s consider those tributaries for a moment. During a recent stream creel survey conducted by the Department of Environmental Conservation in 2011-2012, total estimated effort showed 1,582,428 angler hours – an increase over the last surveys in 2005-06 (999,182) and 2006-07 (910,413). At the top of the list stands the Salmon River, home to the lake’s major fish hatchery in Altmar. This river accounted for 68 percent of the angler effort per hours fished and 39 percent of the total number of trips. Sitting in at number two was 18 Mile Creek in the Town of Newfane, Niagara County. This small section of tributary registered about 14 percent of the angler action, translating into some 59,000 trips. A majority of the fishing takes place in September through November, but there is a significant amount of fishing during the winter months, too, if conditions aren’t severe.
Fisherman’s Park, located at Burt Dam and operated by the Town of Newfane, will usually see 40,000 to 50,000 fishermen every fall during that September to November timeframe. Stop in during the prime of the salmon and trout run and check out the license plates on the vehicles – Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia, Colorado, New Jersey, Maine, Massachusetts … the list goes on. It’s very impressive to say the least.
Out in the lake, the fishery normally extends from April to October with a few exceptions. One is the Niagara River, where the Niagara Bar can be fished (barring severe weather and wind) throughout the winter. According to DEC’s lake creel census, the last 10 years are the best 10 years ever for Chinook salmon fishing, based on catch rates. The survey, started by the Department of Environmental Conservation in 1985, uses agency personnel to conduct interviews of fishing boats from April 15 to Sept. 30 each year. In 2012, Lake Ontario fishermen and women experienced the fourth consecutive year of the best total trout and salmon fishing ever.
In looking at the overall picture, it was the tenth consecutive year of the highest Chinook salmon catch rates; fifth consecutive year of the highest rainbow trout catch rates; the second best year for brown trout action; the third best year for Coho salmon fishing; and the second consecutive year for lake trout catch rates compared to those observed in the 1990s.
Even with the excellent fishing, though, the estimated fishing effort was down nearly 20 percent compared to the previous five year average with just over 56,000 boat trips being recorded. Of that total, 82 percent of the boats focused on salmon and trout. Part of the problem was a fewer number of boats the end of April and a decrease in the number of boats in August. With fishing as good as what it’s been, we need to take more advantage of this in the promotional tourism arenas. While we have made some headway in trying to get DEC and I Love NY Division of Tourism on the same page, the process is a slow one. In other areas we seem to be taking a step backward. One is how the water levels are being addressed, including the need for dredging in the shallow draft harbors around the Great Lakes – but especially in Lake Ontario.
Fishing is big business on Lake Ontario. According to a recent study conducted by Niagara University in 2009 and 2010, sportfishing is responsible for a $30 million annual impact in Niagara County alone! However, water levels are already causing a negative impact when combined for a need for dredging. One case study involves the port of Wilson. Last year, the port lost at least a month of its boating season because of accidents that were reported in the Federal channel. An alert has been issued by the Army Corps of Engineers regarding the problems and word is out among the boating community that there are some serious issues.
Even if some money became available from the Federal government for dredging, it only would address part of the problem. Dredging would take place in the Federal channel (which is some 4,200 feet long) – not in the rest of the harbor, such as where the boats are docked or launched. In Plan 2014, the water level implementation would call for lower lows and higher highs – lower water than we experienced last fall. The area harbors, marinas and launch ramps would not have been able to function.
In the Town of Newfane Marina in Olcott, named the Ultimate Fishing Town by the World Fishing Network in 2012, the boat launch was completely shut down at one point late last fall due to the low water conditions. While the Federal channel for the harbor could still use some dredging, it doesn’t address the problems in and around the marina. The Federal channel is essentially the area between the two Federal piers in Olcott.
When the DEC press office was asked to address any concerns about water levels in Lake Ontario, this was how they responded: “Other than issues related to boat access/navigation, the low water should not have any impact on fishing in 2013. It could, however, negatively impact natural reproduction for several cool water fish species, such as northern pike, yellow perch, and muskellunge. Those impacts could possibly result in poorer fishing for those species several years from now.”
The bigger question has to be how it will affect the tributaries regarding water flows. Also, how will this impact natural reproduction of salmon and trout in places like the Salmon River, which DEC is telling us significant? The IJC could be playing with fire if the implementation of this plan were to create any negative effects.
Leadership from the Wilson community met with DEC Commissioner Joseph Martens last week to discuss Plan 2014. They cited conflicts within the environmental scientific community over the benefits of Plan 2014. “Given the IJC’s significant projections for economic loss,” as written to Martens by the Wilson stakeholder group, “we are asking that the Commission use a variation of this adaptive process to “experiment” or “pilot” some levels over the next several years to confirm the environmental benefits and create a win-win situation that minimizes the damages to landowners, municipalities and boaters. In fact, the previous IJC board had given us assurances that the plan would not go into effect unless and until a method of mitigation for the affected interests was put into place.”
It’s important to become familiar with Plan 2014 and get involved. Attend the public hearing in Lockport tonight if just to become more informed. Information on the Plan can be found on the IJC website at http://ijc.org/en_/losl/home.
While we really didn’t address the issue of dredging, somehow this needs to be part of the plan in that the issues need to be address. And even though the Federal government is sitting on some $8 billion in cash sitting in the Harbor Maintenance Trust Fund, we still need to think about implementing some sort of a plan to take matters into our own hands – on a local, regional and state level. Some ideas being tossed around have been a surcharge on your boat registration in the counties bordering the south shore of Lake Ontario; a fee or surcharge on boat launches and boat slips in the areas affected; and the purchase of equipment to conduct the dredging work.
Unfortunately, we are a ways off implementing anything like this and it still doesn’t hit all of the users of the resource. This is one of those situations where we all have to work together to achieve a common goal or objective.
This Week's Outdoor Calendar
• Final day for the Oswego County Lake Ontario Pro-Am Salmon Team Tournament Series held out of the City of Oswego. For more information log on to www.lakeontarioproam.net.
• Final Day, Erie Canal Fishing Derby. The Awards Ceremony will take place next Sunday in Gasport at the fire hall starting at 3 p.m. For more information log on to www.eriecanalderby.com or call Steve Harrington at 772-7972.
• International Joint Commission public hearing on Great Lakes water levels and the proposed Plan 2014 at Cornell Cooperative Extension Niagara, 4487 Lake Avenue, Lockport from 6-9 p.m. For more information check out: http://ijc.org/en_/losl/home.
• Firearms hunter safety training certification class at Erway’s, 4202 Willow Rd., Wilson. Preregister by phone at 778-9935 or 433-4189 between 5-9 p.m. Class size limited to 30 people. Parts 2 and 3 are July 16 and 17. All sessions are from 5:30 to 9:30 p.m.
• Niagara Frontier 3-D Archery League Shoot at Wilson Conservation Club, Route 425, Wilson. Registration from 3-6 p.m. Call Mike Hertel at 583-4145 for more info.
• Firearms hunter safety education class at Wilson Conservation Club, 2934 Wilson-Cambria Road, Wilson from 6-9 p.m. Part 2 is July 19 from 6-9 p.m.; Part 3 is July 20 starting at 9 a.m. You must pre-register. For more information contact Stan Culverwell from 5 to 9 p.m. at 751-9848.
• Harmful Algal Bloom Workshop organized by Sea Grant NY in Buffalo at the Ramada Hotel and Conference Center, Amherst. For more info call 315-312-3042.
• Lockport Conservation Club, 4112 Lake Avenue, Lockport will hold their monthly general membership meeting starting at 8 p.m.
• A Stroll Along the Rim at Whirlpool State Park from 6-8 p.m. Call 282-5154 for registration or additional information.
• Niagara County Chapter of SCOPE (Shooter Committee On Political Education) will be holding their monthly meeting at the American Legion Post in Ransomville starting at 7 p.m. For more info call Don Clark at 791-4628.
• Captain’s meeting for the Wayne County Pro-Am Salmon Team Tournament at 6 p.m. at the Sodus Point Volunteer Fire Company Hall, Route 14, Sodus Point.
• Day one, Lake Ontario Pro-Am Salmon Team Tournament out of Sodus Point/Wayne County. For more information contact Chris Kenyon at 315-879-1341.
• Hike the Whirlpool Rapids Trail from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. with state parks naturalists. For more info or to register call 282-5154.
• King of the Oak three-fish tournament out of Point Breeze, Orleans County. Weigh station at Lake Breeze by 3 p.m. Register at Lake Breeze, Captain’s cove, Four C’s or Narby’s before event.Bill Hilts Jr. is an outdoor writer with the Niagara Tourism and Convention Corporation. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.