Saturday, September 16, 2017

Cornell’s History of Protecting Adirondack Fisheries

2016 Cornell Adirondack Fisheries Research Program Boat CrewI recently wrote about the impacts of acid rain, which results from burning fossil fuels, on Adirondack lakes and streams. But, did you know that Cornell University has been a leader in efforts to safeguard natural fisheries within the Adirondacks and to protect them from the damaging effects of acid rain, invasive species, and climate change for well-over half-a-century?

In fact, Cornell’s cold-water fishery research has historically focused on the Adirondack region. And just last year, the New York State College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University (CALS) established a new faculty fellowship in fisheries and aquatic sciences, named for the late (and extremely-well-respected) Professor of Fishery Biology, Dr. Dwight A. Webster; the educator who laid the groundwork for what is now the Adirondack Fishery Research Program (AFRP).

In the 1950s, Dr. Webster was approached, as a private consultant, by the Adirondack League Club (ALC), a hunting and fishing club founded in the Old Forge area in the 1890s, to help club members figure out why there were no-longer any lake trout living in Honnedaga Lake, a 770-acre lake situated on ALC property. In the late 19th and early 20th century, Honnedaga Lake supported a thriving sport fishery; boasting hundreds of fish caught by anglers, annually. But, by 1930, the entire population of whitefish, white sucker, and creek chub had completely disappeared from the lake. By 1955, the once-flourishing lake trout population had died off too. Nearly identical changes occurred in the fish community of the nearby North Branch of the Moose River, as well.

With assistance from club members, landowners, and state agencies, Webster began his research, which included keeping records of water sample tests, fish surveys, and other measured data. His findings meticulously demonstrated that decades of atmospheric acid deposition, or acid rain (a term that wasn’t introduced until 1972), was the cause. It’s interesting to note that Honnedaga Lake now supports one of the seven remaining heritage species (original genetic strains) of brook trout designated by the State of New York, and that brook trout are the only species of fish currently living in the lake. Honnedaga Lake-strain brook trout, originating from eggs collected from fish spawning in the lake, were stocked during two distinct periods; 1952 to 1968 and 2002 / 2003.

Today, under the guidance of Professor of Natural Resources, Clifford Kraft, Cornell University’s Adirondack Fishery Research Program endeavors to either identify ways to manage key aquatic organisms (i.e. sport fish, nuisance invaders, and rare species) or to understand the factors limiting the capacity for their management. Research is conducted in collaboration with partners from other academic institutions, state and federal agencies, and private stakeholders.

Little Moose Field Station,near Old Forge, serves as field-headquarters for research conducted in the Adirondack Mountains. The station is comprised of coldwater fish culture facilities, a wet lab for chemical analysis and field sample processing, a library and office space with internet access, and temporary living quarters for students and visitors. Indoor hatchery space is used for rearing eggs and fingerlings. Outdoor hatchery space includes eight 10-foot-diameter circular tanks, contained within a 35- x 70-foot pole barn, and two 21-foot outside circular tanks for rearing salmonid fish species including brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis), Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar), and round whitefish (Prosopium cylindraceum). The tanks are enclosed by an electric fence, which discourages bears. Smaller tanks are also available for experimental purposes. Hatchery water is gravity-fed; supplied through a line from Little Moose Lake, which delivers 100 gallons per minute with an annual temperature range of 37 to 59-degrees Fahrenheit. Water from a low pH stream can also be diverted into the facility for biotic impact studies related to acid rain.

In recent years, AFRP’s focus has grown to include waters throughout New York State, allowing researchers to better-address the wide-range of North American coldwater-fishery aquatic-resource-management issues. Faculty members from Cornell University, other universities, and federal and state agencies collaborate on research projects based out of the field station.

Since Dr. Kraft’s arrival at Cornell in 1998, AFRP has initiated and sustained several long-term evaluations, including climate change impacts on coldwater fish and aquatic ecosystems, the impacts of dominant invasive species on fish communities and ecosystems, factors influencing large-scale fish mortality from thiamine deficiency, and the influence of forested landscapes on ecosystem processes in lakes and rivers.

The research efforts of Professor Kraft and his AFRP teams, which are designed to provide recommendations for managing and restoring aquatic ecosystems, have helped direct stream-water-quality- and habitat-management-efforts, as well as fisheries-management-endeavors, in bodies of water ranging in size from small ponds to the Great Lakes.

Photo: 2016 Cornell Adirondack Fishery Research Program crew (courtesy Cornell University’s Adirondack Fishery Research Program).

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Richard Gast is a retired Extension Program Educator and has been contracted by Cornell Cooperative Extension Franklin County to continue his informative and thought provoking articles.

One Response

  1. Boreasfisher says:

    Very encouraging to know about this long term effort to understand and protect these world class cold water fisheries. I believe there is a more recent research project at one of the universities in Montreal (Concordia maybe) studying the impact of alewives on landlocked salmon breeding behavior in Lake Champlain and the Boquet. These are interesting studies. It would be useful to know whether the research is regularly made available to the public or kept behind a paywall.

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