The Death of the St. Lawrence Musky Fishery
Guest Blog from John Anderson of Ottawa River Musky Factory
Extensive research strongly suggests that the survival rate of YOY (young of the year) muskellunge in much of the St. Lawrence River is close to zero. This situation may have existed for three or five or more years already. Muskies live to full life in the St. Lawrence River which is 30 years. Do the math.
I have been disturbed since I read the winter edition of the Muskies Canada Release Journal. Peter Levick‘s sensational final issue as editor was dedicated to all the great things that have been accomplished in the musky world in Canada through research and how it has benefited musky populations everywhere and every single musky angler who hunts. It also featured several articles involving current research on the St. Lawrence River.
The research involved teams of experienced biologists from NY, Ontario, and Quebec surveying approximately 200 traditional spawning sites from the start of the river near Kingston to past Montreal over many years. This stretch is home to the greatest musky fisheries of all time, period. It is a fishery based on natural reproduction and the research strongly suggests this is no longer viable. Thousands of net pulls up and down the river are failing to find any muskellunge surviving the egg and fry stage of the spawn.
Why? A series of man-caused interventions on the system has changed it greatly:
- The construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway in the 1950s began man managing water levels on the system for freighter traffic. This meant lower water levels in the spring to allow for higher water levels during the summer. The result was a slow degradation of traditional musky spawning areas that had existed for centuries.
- VHS – Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia, a European salmonid virus, was introduced into the system by foreign freighter traffic. In the spring of 2006 it killed hundreds of primary giant female muskies in the upper and middle sections of the river and the population crashed. Numbers never recovered in the river from this point on.
- In 2008 spawning site surveys searching for YOY muskellunge had high numbers of round gobies beginning to appear. The following years saw their population grow exponentially. Renown giant hunter Bill Barber told me recently that on his trips into the traditional spawning bays he has made in the spring over the last number of years ‘the bottom moves’. Gobies cover the bottom of the St. Lawrence River from 5 to 60 feet in most sections but the conditions in the Thousand Island region are especially well-suited to gobies who have been captured up to a foot long. Billy also tells me he catches muskies that regurgitate gobies.
- A combination of other factors have contributed to get us to where we are now including allowing cormorant populations to grow grossly out of control. This occurred after the water in the Larry was filtered clear by zebra mussels when they were introduced, again by European freighters, in 1989. Two flocks in the Kingston area were measured at numbers well over 10,000 birds last year and each adult bird eats a pound of fish per day.
- Although most anglers have learned to handle and release muskellunge much more successfully on the Upper St. Lawrence River, the traditional and preferred type of angling – long-line trolling with planer boards or very long line trolling with mono-filament line (which still exists in surprising volume out of the Clayton NY area) has contributed. The type of boats necessary to navigate these big waters makes it more difficult to handle and release these fish after substantially long fight times. Many responsible anglers have moved to on board live well systems in the modern day.
- The weed structures that support YOY fish of all species have been greatly effected through all of this change as well and this is the base necessary to support most young fish. The pike population in the system crashed at the same time as the musky population, or even slightly before and is a shadow of what it was. It is probably reasonable to say that any fish that spawns on the St. Lawrence River proper is in trouble.
It is hard to find good news stories about the musky population on the Larry. It appears the further one travels down river from the Thousand Island section the less severe the situation may be. Lake St. Francis on down has a slightly lower population of gobies at present and there is more diverse spawning opportunities for muskies, especially in the form of tributary waters. Muskies often travel into smaller rivers and streams to spawn and gobies don’t like certain water. The Ottawa River and the St. Lawrence merge but there are very few gobies in the tannin filled waters of the O because it doesn’t have what they need.
There is some hope that the ‘zero’ score for YOY captures up and down the river in the last three years is partially the result of scientists inability to catch YOY on traditional spawning areas because the fish moved somewhere else to spawn due to high water conditions and cold spring water temperatures. This was found to be the case on Georgian Bay and after their high water years the musky population thrived and YOY captures were again normalized. We all hope this is the case, however, the omnipresent gobies issue did not exist in GB. Only time and more research will tell us if somehow this high water time for the Larry is helping muskies survive.
These are tough times and people are more important than fish. We will defeat Covid and life will return to something more normal again. Unfortunately the fuse was lit on this time bomb a while ago and we are all watching it burn year by year. There will be little money from the government for research or stocking intelligently to bypass the egg and fry stage and maintain the greatest musky genetics in the world. It will have to come from the musky community and others who care about species at risk.
More research is necessary immediately. Action is required very soon. People and money are the only thing that will make these happen.
Dr. John Farrell from Syracuse University has studied muskies for decades on the St. Lawrence River. He began a stocking program last year and placed 6000 juvenile fish in the river. You can listen to a recent interview with Dr. Farrell talking about the goby population and its’ effects on St. Lawrence muskies on Lawrence Gunther’s Blue Fish Canada radio show:
My friends Frank and Chris from Ugly Pike Podcast released a great episode last week featuring Dr. John Paul Leblanc who has spent a decade studying early life ecology of muskellunge in Georgian Bay, the St. Lawrence River, and Lake Huron. You can listen to it at:
So where do we go from here? That’s up to you and me.
Got a couple of extra dollars? Not now maybe but down the road hopefully we all will….. Got time to contribute? There are facilities available to rear muskellunge for stocking in Canada but it requires labour and regular attention. Can you create awareness of this problem? To the community, to politicians, to anglers, to anyone and everyone.
The fish in the pic is one of the last real 60-inch muskies caught in the world. It is from the St. Lawrence River and was caught by Muskies Canada Hall of Fame member Jim Hutchings and guide Greg Reynolds.
Jim Saric Musky Hunter TV
Ashley Rae – shelovestofish.com
Chaos Tackle Company
Big Jim McLaughlin
Just Fishing with “Big” Jim McLaughlin
Shimano North America Fishing
Bob Izumi’s Real Fishing