For many reasons, Chautauqua Lake discussions tend to lean towards the green, leafy things that are affecting or can affect it. Whether it be the wonderfully vibrant vegetative buffers that we encourage along its edge, the vast plant beds that cover its shallower areas, or the unfortunate summer neon slime that covers its surface, the importance of plants and the role they play in a lake ecosystem is undeniably a topic that needs to be addressed. But what we tend to forget and not discuss as frequently is…what is going on beneath the surface with the fish and aquatic life that live, reproduce, and survive in this vast abundance of living plants?
Being a fish biologist by education, it is hard for me to deny the many colorfully scaled critters that live and breathe under the water. As we swim, boat, kayak, paddle board, jet ski, and party barge our way over Chautauqua Lake’s surface, do we ever stop and think about how our behaviors above and on the surface are affecting the everyday survival of the fish that live below?
Chautauqua Lake supports a rather diverse sports fishing industry. It is recognized as a premiere, world-class muskellunge fishery. It ranks among the top largemouth and smallmouth bass lakes in New York State. Walleye are also a highly prized sportfish of Chautauqua Lake, and panfish such as yellow perch, white perch, pumpkinseed, bluegill, crappie, and bullhead provide a wonderful year-round fishing experience. Not to mention the incredible ice fishing opportunities we have here as well.
It takes a lot of time, money, and manpower to study a population that you cannot see. NYSDEC Region 9 Fisheries biologists conduct spring musky netting and fall walleye electrofishing surveys annually. Gill net surveys and fall bottom trawling to monitor yellow and white perch populations were historically done bi-annually, and they are currently trying to get back to repeating those on a 2–4-year cycle (as time permits). A spring electrofishing survey to evaluate bass and sunfish populations is typically done every 5 years. (The next one is planned for 2024.) In 2018-19, a summer shore seining survey was conducted to look for YOY musky and document any natural reproduction. Despite all of this work, they don’t have the resources to conduct the intensive research needed to fully understand how all those factors tie together and drive the ecosystem functions in Chautauqua Lake.
There are numerous complex factors influencing the lake, most of which vary and change with every coming year. These include harmful algal blooms, herbicide treatment, aquatic plant cutting, invasive species interactions, habitat loss, armored shorelines, and unusual weather events - just to name quite a few. It is difficult and challenging, maybe even impossible, to understand how all of these factors interact and affect the lake’s fish populations. With Chautauqua Lake being one of the largest tourist attractions in Chautauqua County and a primary destination for recreational fisherman from all over the country, why are we not speaking up and speaking out about how our human behaviors above the surface affect the water quality and lake health and how they are affecting one of our most valuable assets below it?
It's safe to say that what we do to the green, leafy habitats within the water greatly affects ALL of the aquatic life that lives within it. If we want strong, healthy fish populations below, then we need to be fully aware of our behaviors and actions above. If something seems “fishy” on the surface then there are most likely suspicious, unhealthy things could be happening below the waves as well. As we continue with our many lake discussions, our fish populations and aquatic life need to be included! We all want what is best for our lake, so let’s make sure that we are thinking about not only how WE can benefit, but also how all that lives and breathes below the surface can too! And…that way…we can enjoy these big, beautiful creatures for many years to come!
by Carol Markham, Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy Conservationist
(photo of Bill Swanson with a muskie he caught on Chautauqua Lake in November 2022, taken by Vance Kaloz)