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Lake Erie Surprises


									                   Surprises     by Linda Steiner

     Lake Erie is full of surprises–literally. The Great Lake is a great lake for meeting
     rare, strange, and unusual fish. It’s like no other waterway in Pennsylvania.

                                                                                                                   photo-Linda Steiner

                                   Roger Kenyon’s “beat,” as a Pennsyl-       that he’s become shockproof at Lake
                                vania Fish and Boat Commission                Erie’s unending changes, or at least has
                                fisheries biologist, is like no other fish-   learned to adapt himself and roll with
                                eries biologist’s in the state. For nearly    what the waves turn up.
                                30 years, Kenyon has been involved in            No wonder tales and ballads have
                                fisheries management in the Pennsyl-          come out of the Great Lakes. They are
                                vania section of Lake Erie. Yet, those        all giants–even “little” Lake Erie, just
                                years could never be boring–Lake Erie         250 miles long and 50 miles wide.
                                is always something new and different.        When seen for the first time by those to
                                   “Lake Erie drives you nuts. When           whom a lake is a sedate pond with all
                                you’re used to fishery stability in other     shores visible, the Great Lakes astonish
                                waters, this lake is all over the map,”       and humble. Like the others, Lake Erie
                                says Kenyon. “Any freshwater ecologist        is a landscape of water, sky, and expec-
                                or limnologist should come here for a         tation. What’s going to happen next?
                                real education. Pull one brick, one spe-         Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie frontage is
                                cies out of the ecosystem link, and the       mostly on what is known as the Central
                                whole thing changes.”                         Basin. Biologists consider the lake to
                 Roger Kenyon      In his career, Kenyon has seen a lot       have three distinct sections, though
                                of “bricks” added and removed from            from above it looks like just one huge
                                the Lake Erie fish community. He’s            pool. The Western Basin is the shallow-
                                almost constantly had to revise his un-       est, with some extended shoals only 20
                                derstanding of how that inland                feet deep, which makes it the most
                                freshwater sea’s web of aquatic life and      prone to pollution problems. The East-
                                energy responds. Guess you could say          ern Basin is the coldest and deepest,                                                                     Pennsylvania Angler & Boater             41
                                                                                                       Lake sturgeon


                                                                                                                       photo-Rob Criswell

plunging in some spots more than 200        and Canada in 1955. For more infor-       “dug” the lake, and changed the direc-
feet. Pennsylvania’s Presque Isle penin-    mation on the commission, visit           tion of rivers flowing into and out of
sula and its counterpart across the lake                             the region. Fish and other aquatic spe-
in Canada, Long Point, seem to divide         On average, Lake Erie is the shallow-   cies that already lived in those rivers
the Central from the Eastern Basin.         est of all the Great Lakes; off Erie      were added to the new Great Lake; it
   Lake Erie has shoreline in Michigan,     County, Pennsylvania it averages only     was probably a strange mix from the
Ohio, Pennsylvania, New York, and the       70 feet deep. But that’s enough depth     start. Later, intentional and accidental
province of Ontario. Management and         to give it both coolwater and             alien introductions (still going on to-
monitoring involve five political enti-     warmwater fishery types with unusual      day) made it an even more chaotic
ties. Their diverse views on what the       species variety, Kenyon says.             assortment. Yet, the whole, in some
lake’s fisheries and their use echo the       Why so many different fish? One         way, works. As Kenyon says, there’s
complexity of the lake’s fisheries.         reason is that the lake is the child of   just so much energy present in the lake.
Helping to coordinate it all is the Great   monumental ice movements across           Which species are passing it around, as
Lakes Fishery Commission, established       northwestern Pennsylvania terrain, tens   their populations rise and fall, appear
by treaty between the United States         of thousands of years ago. The glaciers   and disappear, is always changing.

     Spotted gar. Like
     sturgeons, gars are
     primitive, prehistoric
     relicts. As a leftover
     survival technique from
     the ancient days, they can
     use their swim bladder as
     a spare breathing
     apparatus, a sort of
     “lung” that can be put
     into action when oxygen
     levels are low in the water
     around them. Then they
     come to the surface and
     gulp air from above.

                                                                                                                       photo-Rob Criswell

42        Pennsylvania Angler & Boater                                                          
Lake sturgeon                              Gar                                              “Some of these primitive fishes may
   Some Lake Erie water life is insanely      Lake Erie even has its own version of      also have been in other large lake sys-
abundant; others are vanishingly rare.     an “alligator”–the gar. The spotted           tems, but died out,” says Kenyon. “In
Take the lake’s version of the Loch        and longnose gar are not reptiles, but        something the size of the Great Lakes,
Ness Monster. At least, says Kenyon,       they are heavily scaled, predatory fish       they could find quiet backwaters where
that’s what some observers report          with a long “beak” full of big teeth.         they were not subjected to the same
when they see the wave-wake of a huge      This gave them the nickname “gar              stresses as their populations elsewhere.”
body moving just below the surface.        pike,” but they’re not related to
Actually, they’ve been close to a Penn-    northerns or muskellunge, either.             Glacier
sylvania endangered species, the lake      Surprised anglers sometimes catch gar,           When the last glacier pulled back
sturgeon. In summer, when the lake is      especially in weedy Presque Isle Bay.         from Pennsylvania some 15,000 years
quiet, a small group of sturgeons may      The fish also enter Lake Erie tributary       ago, it left a legacy of new stream direc-
rise to the surface and feed on midges,    streams to spawn, where basking               tions, some totally reversed from their
tiny insects. Because these fish can       4-footers startle onlookers.                  former course. The Upper Allegheny,
grow 6 feet long, some people think           Like sturgeons, gars are primitive,        Tionesta and Beaver-Monongahela
they’ve seen a sea monster, says           prehistoric relicts. As a leftover sur-       drainages had flowed north into what
Kenyon.                                    vival technique from the ancient days,        scientists call the “Erian River.” After
   Lake sturgeons, as a species, are 350   they can use their swim bladder as a          the glacier, these major watersheds fed
million years old, a prehistoric relict,   spare breathing apparatus, a sort of          the Ohio River. Today, the Pennsylva-
which alone makes them an oddity.          “lung” that can be put into action            nia tributary streams to Lake Erie are
They were once quite numerous in           when oxygen levels are low in the water       all short. The divide between the Lake
Lake Erie, says Kenyon, and commer-        around them. Then they come to the            Erie and Ohio River drainages is only
cial fishermen used to throw the fish      surface and gulp air from above.              about 20 miles from the big lake.

 Sea lamprey

                                                                                                                                photo-Rob Criswell

away if they got caught in the nets.                                                        The glacier allowed some species to
Sturgeons were also killed for their       Bowfin                                        push south, while others went north,
caviar and their air bladder, which           The bowfin is another heavily “ar-         says Kenyon. The Iowa darter, another
was used to make isinglass, a semi-        mored,” primitive-looking fish. It has        special protection candidate, is a relict
transparent gelatin that clarifies         hard, bony head plates, a wavy back fin       of glacial times that is found in
jellies and glue.                          that stretches all the way to its tail, and   Presque Isle Bay. The salmonids (trout
   The lake sturgeon became imper-         lots of sharp teeth. Sometimes called         relatives) that are native to Lake Erie
iled primarily by degradation of its       “dogfish,” the bowfin is a candidate          are also remnants from the Ice Age.
spawning sites, says Kenyon, when          species for special protection in Penn-       Needing a coldwater habitat, “this is as
silt covered the gravel where the fish’s   sylvania. Although bowfins are seldom         far south as the whitefish and lake
eggs were laid. Right now there is         encountered elsewhere in the state,           trout got,” explains Kenyon.
renewed interest in restoring the stur-    they’re fairly common in Erie’s Presque          The original lake trout were extir-
geon, he says. A large effort is being     Isle Bay, says Kenyon. Bowfins are a          pated in (gone from) Lake Erie by the
made to locate the sturgeon’s pre-         leftover from the Devonian period of          1930s, the victims of a combination of
ferred spawning grounds, find out          prehistory and are one of a kind. The         commercial fishing, degradation of
where they live, and get an overall        family Amiidae is represented by a            spawning reefs, and parasitism by the
estimate on just how well or how           single species.                               accidentally introduced sea lamprey.
poorly they are doing. For all their          Why are these prehistoric fish still       Lake trout are currently under a resto-
size, lake sturgeon feed on tiny inver-    living in Lake Erie, in the age of com-       ration program in Lake Erie, which is
tebrates–human swimmers are safe.          puters and space flight?                      revised every few years to keep current                                                                                 Pennsylvania Angler & Boater           43
with lake conditions and prospects for                                               over-fertilization, mostly phosphate
bringing the fish back, says Kenyon.                                                 loading, and pollution. “The control

                                                                                     of phosphate loading under the Great

Sea lamprey, whitefish                                                               Lakes Water Quality Act,” says Kenyon,
   Sea lampreys still remain a limita-                                               “was one of the greatest success sto-
tion on populations of salmonids in                                                  ries.” But then in came the zebra
Lake Erie, says Kenyon. They slipped                                                 mussel, a true stowaway, and a spoiler
into the Great Lakes via the Welland                                                 as far as fisheries are concerned. Zebra
Canal that bypassed Niagara Falls, ear-                                              mussels feed by filtering algae and ani-
lier in the century. The long, eel-like    Rainbow smelt, zebra mussel               mal plankton from the water. They
fish feed by attaching themselves by          Kenyon has seen boom and bust in       appear to have made Lake Erie almost
their raspy, “suction-cup” mouth to        many Lake Erie species, both originals    too clean and clear, by locking up nu-
the flanks of smooth-sided fish. Then      and newcomers. The rainbow smelt, a       trients for themselves.
they ingest body fluids from the host.     slim, schooling fish that is an impor-       The zebra mussel hitchhiked from
The most effective control for the salt-   tant food source to larger game fish,     Europe, in ballast water of ocean-cross-
water invader has been spraying Great      had been very abundant but is con-        ing ships. The ballast water was
Lakes tributary streams that have lam-     tinuing a downward trend. “I expect it    customarily dumped into the Great
prey larvae with TFM, a selective          will hit a point and stay at a lower      Lakes, as the ships adjusted their
chemical lampricide. “We have met          level,” says Kenyon. This is “Ecology     weight, along with whatever was still
the goal in control,” says Kenyon, of      101,” he says, when an introduced spe-    alive in the tanks after the voyage
just five lamprey wounds for 100 fish      cies, like smelt, explodes in numbers     across the Atlantic. Today, says
surveyed.                                  shortly after it’s added to a new envi-   Kenyon, incoming ships are supposed
   Whitefish, another trout-relative       ronment, and then declines                to exchange their imported ballast wa-
native to Lake Erie, are a big commer-     dramatically to reach a stable point.     ter for local water, before getting into
cial fishing item in the Western Basin,    Rainbow smelt were a deliberate re-       the Great Lakes. This should cut down
and some netting of the excellent-eat-     lease into the Great Lakes; by 1935 the   on more alien species invading North
ing fish is still done in the              fish was recorded in Lake Erie.           America’s inland freshwaters from the
Pennsylvania section. The silvery fish        Smelt depend heavily on plankton,      Caspian Sea, Scotland, and elsewhere
reached their peak numbers several         microscopic plants and animals that       in Europe.
years ago and are currently declining,     fuel the engine of life in the Great         Too small to be a candidate for
“at least in our waters,” he says.         Lakes. Declining nutrient levels in the   marinara sauce and pasta, the zebra
Whitefish populations tend to yo-yo,       lake and competition for plankton         mussel grows to about two inches
a phenomenon more easily watched           from zebra mussels may be contribut-      long. Zebra mussels attach themselves
than explained, he adds.                   ing to the smelt decline, says Kenyon.    to just about anything–shoreline rocks,
                                              In the 1970s, Lake Erie was pro-       water pipe intakes and outflows, boats,
                                           nounced “dead,” done in by                and even other bivalves. Adult females

     Lake trout. The original
     lake trout were extirpated
     in (gone from) Lake Erie
     by the 1930s, the victims
     of a combination of
     commercial fishing,
     degradation of spawning
     reefs, and parasitism by
     the accidentally
     introduced sea lamprey.
     Lake trout are currently
     under a restoration
     program in Lake Erie,
     which is revised every few
     years to keep current
     with lake conditions and
     prospects for bringing the
     fish back.

                                                                                                                   photo-Rob Criswell

44        Pennsylvania Angler & Boater                                                        
                                                                                               Emerald shiner

                                                                                               mussel, gizzard shad numbers are de-
                                                                                               clining, he says.
                                                                                                  The emerald shiner, a slim, silvery
                                                                                               minnow with a green side-stripe,
                                                                                               rounds out the major food-base fishes
                                                                                               of the lake. Emerald shiners are not as
                                                                                               common as they used to be, in the
                                                                                               1950s and 1960s, says Kenyon, when
                                                                          photo-Rob Criswell
                                                                                               tributary streams would turn black
can produce up to 40,000 eggs a year.       them is that they eat zebra mussels,               when the little baitfish made their
Once they’re in a waterway, they blan-      though not enough to make a dent in                spawning runs.
ket it quickly. Their cousin, the           the clam’s overpopulation. Gobies are                  Once in a while, a few freshwater
quagga mussel, has colonized the            in turn eaten by game fish.                        eels make it into the lake from the St.
deeper waters of Lake Erie. The                                                                Lawrence River, and catchable floun-
quagga, too, was accidentally released      Alewife, gizzard shad                              der have appeared, brought in with
in ballast water from Europe.                  Lake Erie also has alewives. An ale-            that infamous ballast water from
                                            wife isn’t someone’s spouse who serves             ocean-going vessels. Or the nibble
Spiny water flea, round goby                good beer, but a small herring that is             might be from a sheephead, or fresh-
   Ballast water from Europe also           important forage for game fish. Ale-               water drum, a white bass, white perch,
brought “B.C.,” whose full name is          wives are another introduced species to            or freshwater cod. Freshwater cod are
Bythotrephes cederstroemi, otherwise        the Great Lakes, becoming abundant                 also called burbot and ling. “The bur-
called the spiny water flea. This “flea”    or scarce in cycles. Alewives do not               bot is an ugly, deepwater carnivore,”
is not an insect at all, but a tiny (less   tolerate cold water well, and seek out             Kenyon says, and a Pennsylvania
than a half-inch long) crustacean with      warmer temperatures. From time to                  threatened species. The burbot is do-
a long, sharp, barbed tail spine. It ap-    time, schools get caught by frigid water           ing very well in Lake Erie, but not
peared in Lake Huron in 1984, but           and die, sometimes washing onto                    elsewhere in the state.
soon exploded throughout the Great          beaches by the thousands.
Lakes. B.C. would be a popular zoop-           A herring like the alewife, the giz-            Salmon
lankton food source for fish, except        zard shad also experiences population                 One of the biggest predators in Lake
that its claw-like shape can choke          booms and busts in Lake Erie. Kenyon               Erie is unlikely to be seen nowadays,
smaller predators.                          says he’s seen winterkills washed                  although it was the “star fish” several
   The round goby is the latest ballast     ashore, to the complaints of beach us-             decades ago. Chinook salmon were
water stowaway to emigrate to Lake          ers and residents. The fish had to be              brought in as part of a Pacific-salmon
Erie. The goby was first noticed in         hauled away by the truckload, like                 stocking program throughout the
1990, but now thrives throughout the        snowdrifts. Another pelagic (mid-wa-               Great Lakes, along with their relatives,
Great Lakes. It is an aggressive, vora-     ter, free-swimming) foodfish, the                  the coho, the pink salmon (rarely seen
cious feeder that can forage in total       gizzard shad is named for its muscular,            now), and others. Chinook aren’t
darkness. Gobies grow six to eight          gizzard-like stomach. With the reduc-              stocked into the lake from Pennsylva-
inches long and take baited hooks.          tion in lake productivity, post-zebra              nia hatcheries anymore, says Kenyon.
The problem with this new arrival is
that the goby takes over prime spawn-        Burbot
ing areas that are traditionally used by
native species and competes with na-
tive fish for habitat. They are already
causing problems for other bottom-
dwelling Great Lakes native fish like
mottled sculpin, logperch, and darters.
Gobies can also withstand degraded
water conditions.
   Gobies are extremely abundant in
Pennsylvania’s Lake Erie waters, says
Kenyon. The only good news about                                                                                                     photo-Rob Criswell                                                                                      Pennsylvania Angler & Boater            45
The hook-and-line state record stands                                                                As far as blue pike turning up again in
at nearly 30 pounds, which would seem                                                             Canada’s backcountry waters, Kenyon is
to make it an attractive sport fish.                                                              skeptical. Many fish show color muta-
   But chinook, or king, salmon “were                                                             tions and pigment variations. “I get
never able to contend with the Lake Erie                                                          shown blue this and blue that all the
environment,” says Kenyon, and they                                                               time,” he says. Kenyon says some of the
are declining in all the Great Lakes.                                                             interest in bringing back the native blue
Like the chinook, the coho, or silver,                                                            pike may just be fond wishful thinking
salmon population had to be main-                                                                 for “that wonderful period of time.”
tained by artificial hatchery production.                                                         But Lake Erie has changed so much in
Although these salmon teasingly return                                                            species makeup that introducing a blue
to tributary streams to spawn (seldom,                                                            pike from other waters, even if it’s ge-
if ever, successfully in the Great Lakes                                                          netically similar or identical to the
region), the adults die after they’ve fin-                                                        originals, could bring unforeseen re-
ished their reproductive chores. Cohos                                                            sults. Behavior and other aspects of the
gave anglers a better return than                                                                 fish’s life history may be unpredictable,
chinooks, but the decreasing availability                                                         plus blue pike were known to interbreed
of eggs and the steelhead’s increasing                                                            with walleyes, now arguably the lake’s
popularity with Lake Erie anglers will                                                            most popular game fish. Kenyon says
probably see the rainbow trout super-                                                             “this (talk of reintroduction) is coming
ceding the coho as the prime salmonid                                                             too quickly and too fast, and people’s
                                                                            photo-Linda Steiner
game fish in the lake.                                                                            expectations are too high.”
   Steelheads are rainbow trout that         PA angler Mike Detore with a steelhead he               Is there a crystal ball that can predict
migrate to a large lake or the ocean,        caught in Elk Creek, Erie County.                    how Lake Erie will change next? Sev-
and enter inflowing rivers to spawn.         Steelheads are rainbow trout that migrate            eral alien species (blame ships’ ballast
Unlike cohos and chinooks, steelheads        to the lake and enter inflowing rivers to            water again) aren’t quite into
don’t necessarily die after releasing        spawn. Steelheads don’t necessarily die              Pennsylvania’s Great Lake waters, but
their eggs or milt. Instead, they may        after spawning. Instead, they may return             will probably get here eventually. The
return to the big water and grow larger,     to the big water and grow larger, so                 ruffe is a small, spiny perch that is ca-
so they’re even more attractive to an-       they’re even more attractive to anglers on           pable of explosive population growth,
glers on their next spawning run.            their next spawning run.                             which showed up first in Lake Supe-
Originally Westerners, steelhead rain-                                                            rior. Since 1986, it’s gotten only as far
bow trout have long been hatchery                                                                 east as Lake Huron, says Kenyon. An-
propagated. Kenyon says steelheads           Wildlife Service (USFWS) in whether                  other alien spiny water flea, Cercopagis
are more flexible in habitat than cohos      the blue pike (actually a blue walleye,              pengoi, is also ballooning in numbers
and have a wider diet, eating not only       but called “pike” because of it teeth)               elsewhere in the Great Lakes, but
fish, but also invertebrates.                was a separate species or subspecies or              hasn’t been seen in Lake Erie yet.
   For a change, brown trout are a pur-      color variation of the walleye. The                     How do fisheries biologists, like
posely introduced European species.          USFWS is also looking into reports of                Kenyon, know what’s in the big lake?
“They do well in Lake Erie,” says            blue pike caught in northern Canadian                   “We use a set of sampling procedures
Kenyon, “but not as well as we’d like.”      lakes, supposedly remnants from ear-                 and standardized stations we visit that
The Fish and Boat Commission hasn’t          lier transplants from Lake Erie. DNA                 are consistent from year to year,” he
made an effort with the anadromous           testing on tissue samples (kept for de-              says. “Any change in abundance or
(sea-running) form of the brown trout,       cades and recently rediscovered) from                catch rate for any species can be de-
he says, because the steelhead has re-       actual blue pike helped determine re-                tected.” Changes in populations, good
sponded so well. Brown trout have            cently that the blue pike was indeed a               or poor “year classes” (fish born in the
done better in cooler, deeper neighbor-      distinct species. Slightly smaller than              same reproductive season), and fish
ing Lake Ontario. Brook trout, North         the “yellow” walleye, looking almost                 movements can be assessed by the
American natives, were original to the       transparent, or so Kenyon says observ-               trawling and gill netting samples, and
Great Lakes drainages, but any caught        ers have told him, the blue pike was a               also by looking at the sportfishing and
in Lake Erie today are probably wander-      popular table fish. Blue pike were                   commercial fishing harvests. Many
ers from stream stockings.                   fished for heavily for sport and com-                sampling techniques are standardized
                                             mercial sale, but Kenyon says their                  among the state and provincial wildlife
Blue pike                                    disappearance was caused more by the                 agencies bordering the lake, which aids
   The blue pike was a homegrown spe-        smelt “overwhelming” the blue pike,                  in accuracy, says Kenyon. But no mat-
cies, too, unique to Lake Erie, but it       eating their fry and competing for                   ter how scientific fisheries management
seems to have disappeared entirely. Or       spawning grounds.                                    gets, Lake Erie always surprises.
has it? Kenyon says there has been re-
newed interest by the U.S. Fish and

46       Pennsylvania Angler & Boater                                                                        

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