A conservation milestone has been reached: Lake trout are reproducing in Lake Erie, where the native fish were considered extinct.
In May, biologists from the New York Department of Environmental Conservation found baby lake trout in waters near the Pennsylvania-New York border. The species was identified through genetic bar-coding, confirming the presence of naturally reproducing lake trout in the lake.
"Today marks a key milestone in the restoration of lake trout in Lake Erie after six decades of significant investments to improve water quality and habitat and promote sound fisheries management," said DEC Commissioner Basil Seggos in a statement Aug. 11. "This phenomenal Great Lakes story of recovery is a testament to the perseverance of the researchers and biologists from DEC and partner agencies who worked tirelessly to help restore this fishery."
The largest member of the cold-water char family, Salvelinus namaycush can live for 40 years and grow to more than 100 pounds. Forty-pounders are not uncommon in the Great Lakes. Once an alpha predator of Lake Erie, the fish were targeted by commercial fishing ships from the late 1700s through the late 1800s.
In 1833, the Welland Canal bypassed Niagara Falls, opening navigation from the Atlantic Ocean to inland ports throughout the Great Lakes. With international shipping came invasive species including the sea lamprey, an eel-like predator that latches onto large fish and sucks out fluids. By 1938, sea lamprey had become established throughout the lakes.
When Lake Erie's lake trout fishing industry sputtered to a stop in the 1930s, widespread industrial and agricultural pollution continued to impede the trout's delicate reproductive requirements. By 1965, the native strain of lake trout was considered extinct in Lake Erie.
Since the 1970s, the United States, Canada and individual states and provinces have invested billions into Great Lakes conservation and recovery programs. Efforts to mitigate lamprey migration and reproduction have shown progress. To jumpstart the return of lake trout in Lake Erie, fisheries agencies from Pennsylvania, New York, Ohio, Michigan, Ontario and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service have collaborated in stocking a non-native strain raised at the Allegheny National Fish Hatchery in Warren, Pa. Since 2013, about 1 million lake trout have been stocked. Sport fishing is permitted with restrictions, but a culture of voluntary catch-and-release has become common.
During research on potential lake trout reproduction, the fry were trapped over shallow rocks west of Barcelona Harbor, N.Y., not far from the Pennsylvania border. It's a part of the lake well known to charter captain Lane Brown, who in 2019 guided a Crawford County man to set the Pennsylvania lake trout record in those waters with a fish weighing 31 pounds, 13 ounces and measuring 40 inches.
Brown said news of natural reproduction, particularly in that part of the lake, came as a surprise.
"Word among charter captains has been that there is no natural reproduction of lake trout," said Brown, owner of God's Grace Sport Fishing, a charter service out of North East in Erie County. "We didn't think it was possible until this year."