photo: Julia Botero/WRVO News
Story by: Veronica Volk
Every year, the Salmon River Fish Hatchery in Altmar, raises millions of fish to be stocked in Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
The hatchery raises several species of fish, but their pride and joy is the chinook salmon. Each fall, employees harvest millions of eggs, fertilize them, incubate them, and raise the fish until they’re ready to be released into the wild.
This time of year, Les Resseguie and his team are overseeing millions of chinook eggs — each about the size of a pea — incubating in big trays in the hatchery’s basement.
“You can start to see their eyes, you can start to see the major blood vessels, and you’ll actually see them wiggling around a little bit in there,” Resseguie says.
Chinook can grow to be up to 40 pounds in just a couple years, which is partly why they were brought to Lake Ontario in the first place. Chinook were introduced to the Great Lakes in the 1960s to eat the invasive alewife — a one- to two-inch bait fish that infiltrated and infested the lakes.
Fran Verdoliva, program director at the hatchery, says they were a perfect solution to the problem.
“They were readily available, they grow big in a short period of time, and when they spawn, they die, so they’re out of the system,” said Verdoliva.
But the Chinook had a secondary advantage. They’re known by anglers around the world for their fight.
“There’s nothing like it. It’s the crack cocaine of freshwater fishing,” says Glen Buehner, a charter boat captain in Michigan and head of the Great Lakes Salmon Initiative.
Once chinook stocking began in the Great Lakes, an entire economy sprouted up — charter boats and guided trips, but also motels, restaurants and gas stations. But now, after a few cold winters, the alewife population is in trouble.
So the fisheries in New York and Michigan are reducing their chinook stock by over 600,000 to make sure neither population collapses.
Beuhner worries that anglers will hear the word “reduction” and cancel trips. He’s also concerned environmental agencies are working against the sport fishing industry by prioritizing native fish.
For example, in Lake Huron, native species like lake trout and walleye are rebounding, but the alewife population collapsed, and salmon are no longer stocked.
Beuhner says fishing these native species isn’t as exciting, and doesn’t draw as many tourists.
Sara Adlerstein is a researcher with the University of Michigan. She studies food webs in Lake Huron, and says the chinook stocking was not sustainable. Adlerstein says the ecosystem is more stable without invasive and other non-native species, and she wants people to stop disrupting the food web where possible.
“As people, we need to forget the need to impose our will on nature,” said Adlerstein.
Meanwhile, officials in New York and Michigan say the environment and the fishing can improve simultaneously with the reduction to stocking, and they’re trying to put the minds of anglers at ease.