New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has announced a significant milestone for lake trout rehabilitation efforts in Lake Erie following the confirmed identification of wild fry collected by DEC’s Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit this spring.
The discovery of wild lake trout fry is a historic restoration indicator for a population that was once plentiful, but collapsed due to overfishing, habitat degradation, and invasive species.
The recent discovery is the result of an acoustic telemetry study, conducted by DEC expert staff and partners, which identified potential lake trout spawning areas in eastern Lake Erie. On May 14, 2021, DEC’s Lake Erie Fisheries Research Unit staff collected multiple, recently hatched fry in fry traps on a rock reef about five miles west of Barcelona Harbor in Chautauqua County. In July, Dr. Chris Wilson at Trent University positively identified the fry as lake trout through genetic bar-coding.
DEC works closely with partners to assess and restore lake trout, including the U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS), Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission (PFBC), Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources, the Great Lakes Acoustic Telemetry Observation System, and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission.
Lake trout were once the top predator in Lake Erie with records of fish measuring in excess of 50 inches and weighing 75 pounds. Commercial fishing for lake trout in Lake Erie began in the late-1700s, and by the late 1800s, the population had significantly declined. By the 1930s, the commercial fishery had all but ceased, and by 1965, lake trout were considered extirpated from Lake Erie.
Modern-day efforts to restore lake trout began in 1982, with annual stocking by USFWS in partnership with DEC and PFBC. In 1986, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission began suppressing the invasive sea lamprey population to support lake trout rehabilitation efforts. The sea lamprey is a parasitic jawless fish that feeds on other fish by attaching to them using a suction-disk mouth filled with rasping teeth and a file-like tongue.
Recently, biologists determined that adult lake trout stocks had improved to a level at which natural recruitment could be detectable. Although the number of wild lake trout fry collected earlier in 2021 was small, the discovery of evidence that lake trout are spawning and their eggs are surviving and successfully hatching is historic. Following decades of research, this finding validates that restoring wild lake trout populations is attainable. Biologists conduct annual assessments of the population in the eastern basin to measure progress toward rehabilitation goals.
Lake Erie contains some of the largest lake trout available to anglers in New York. New York State’s record lake trout (41 pounds, 8 ounces) was caught in Lake Erie in 2003. Fish exceeding 10 pounds are common and lunkers over 20 pounds are caught every year – these are presumed to have been stocked fish. DEC is expected to continue work to evaluate spawning habitats to identify the potential for habitat restoration.
Photo of lake trout fry captured near Barcelona, Chautauqua County courtesy DEC.