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Right in the Mouth: Lake Ontario Salmon as a Model for Wildlife and Economic Recovery

I tried to retire from the Salmon River this year. I had turned down a few trips to go up there and told people I thought I have had my fill of both the fish and the insanity up there. A few days later, a good friend of mine, Johnny, contacted me and said he was planning on going up with his brother and girlfriend. As a group, they had very little experience fishing, and even less experience salmon fishing. Johnny is super nice, and me knowing damn well what they’d be walking into going salmon fishing on a weekend in late September got my stomach flipping, so I agreed to meet them up there and play guide a bit. Before I knew it, I was standing in the Salmon River at Pineville.

Fishing was steady and typical for this time of year; a good amount of fishing moving and being hooked after first light, then things slowed down a bit as the sun hit the river. That morning, I realized this is my 10th season salmon fishing. I thought about how much my life has changed in a decade, circling around in my mind how odd it feels to be old enough to be able to measure something by a decades-span. I thought about my many victories and defeats that have taken place on that river, the fish, significant others, and friends gained and lost in that time. My first year up there, I was 21, unsure about my place in the world and just about everything else; now, at 31, there’s still many things I’m unsure of, but certainly much less than when I was 21. One thing I know for sure is that I know quite a bit about salmon.

After landing a couple fish early, including a nice coho that I decided to keep, I took a backseat and tried to help out the three of them as much as I could, showing them where and how to cast, how much weight to use, how the fish behave, and where I believed they would be. We took a walk up a side cut and they saw some fish shooting up-river, avoiding the gauntlet of fisherman lined up as far as the eye can see above and below the bridge. We fished a few spots and they didn’t connect on anything, but watched a few more fish on the move. It slowed down a bit, and we decided to check out some other spots.

Johnny is at Cornell studying Agricultural Sciences and his girlfriend Sabrina is a civil engineer – two smart cookies that asked a lot of smart questions about the fishery. We chatted while I showed them around the circus at Trestle Pool before heading down to the estuary, then the hatchery. We talked on the way about the ethics of snagging, concluding somewhere between what difference does it make if they all die anyway, that they lack the brain systems possible to even feel pain as we perceive it, and that they probably would prefer not to be hooked if you could ask them.

I gave them a little background on the salmon run itself, that the Iroquois name for the river is Heh-hah-wa-gah, meaning "where swim the sweet fish. " Early contact narratives said the salmon were in numerous abundance, with one 17th century Jesuit explorer noting that, “one hundred could be taken with a single cast of the net.” By 1898, salmon were completely extirpated from Lake Ontario. There were quite a few attempts at restocking salmon for most of the 20th century, all of which failed due to pollution and lamprey predation. Many had zero fish return.

It struck me while we were talking about what a perfect example this fishery is for alliances between outdoorsman, science, and government policy working together --the kind of thing I think we need more of currently. This story is a common one in the United States: native species first being extirpated at the turn of the century, and many different folks who love the outdoors working in correlation with good conservation policies helping to solve the issues that made the species vanish in the first place, before a successful restoration. There are many example of species being brought back from the brink in the United States, including wild turkeys, white-tailed deer (hard to believe, but for example, Michigan was down to less than 40,000 deer at one point; there are currently about 2 million), bald eagles, gray wolves and others.

The EPA was created in 1970 and the Clean Water Act was passed in 1972, with the basic agenda being to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical and biological integrity of the nation's water.” Prior to this regulation, many tributaries to the Great Lakes were incredibly polluted; most notably, the Cuyahoga River and other Lake Erie tributaries were so polluted that they often caught fire. In 1995, the Great Lakes Initiative helped create water quality criteria for 29 different pollutants as well as creating regulation regarding the maximum loads of pollutants that are permitted to reach the Great Lakes. Currently, the EPA, nine other agencies, more than 140 federal programs, 8 states, nearly 40 tribal nations, seven major metropolitan areas, and numerous county and local governments are continuing work to clean and restore the Great Lakes.

Things finally started to change for the fishery in 1980 when the Hatchery was built; fish started to return. By 1997, a sizable naturally reoccurring run was present. Currently, the Salmon River averages around 120,000 anglers per year fishing for over a million hours. Total, the Great Lakes salmon industry overall is a $7 billion year industry and creates more than 75,000 jobs for the 12 million people that live in the Great Lakes Basin region. This all got me thinking: in my home state of New York or elsewhere, what is the future of conservation? What fisheries and areas need to be restored? How can we create more public land and how can we get more people using it?

Johnny didn't get his first fish this trip, but we're trying to figure out when to go up again, so I guess my retirement ended before it even started. I just can't turn down somebody who wants to learn; the restoration of this fishery is nothing short of miraculous, and I want as many people to experience it as possible. So I say, go ahead, snag, lift, floss, try to get ‘em to eat, throw beads, skein, or whatever else is your thing; the Salmon River has something to offer for just about everyone. And a word of advice: when you hook a fish and you're chasing down or upriver after it, if anyone asks, they’re always hooked right in the mouth.


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