Members reel in data to protect New York’s fish population
By DEBORAH A. MILES
As much of the world thrives on tweets or what’s trending on Facebook, people still enjoy the 40,000-year old activity of catching fish.
April is the start of the New York’s open-water fishing season. It’s a time when youngsters and anglers begin casting their rods in New York Harbor with a view of the Manhattan skyline, or at small, bucolic places like Round Lake in Saratoga County.
There are approximately 180 fish species that inhabit the state’s 7,500 lakes and ponds, and 70,000 miles of rivers and streams. There is everything from darters to salmon and muskellunge, ranking the state as having one of the richest fish faunas in the nation.
Scott Wells, an aquatic biologist 1 at the state Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), has more than 20 years of experience studying and working with all aspects of fish.
This PEF member is one of approximately 30 aquatic biologists who observe and check the state’s aquatic resources. His job includes organizing and performing fish surveys, mostly to monitor what species of fish inhabit the waters.
Gregory Kozlowski, head of the Inland Fisheries Section, said, “There are multiple reasons why we go and perform surveys. We are trying to discover what is happening with fish populations. Most times, we get good news, and other times we find that there may be a step we can take.
“A good example is Chautauqua Lake. This year we changed the walleye regulations from a more restricted regulation to the statewide walleye regulation. We found through our surveys the walleye population is thriving in Chautauqua Lake, so now there is a greater fishing opportunity for people.”
Programs for all ages
Ryan Coulter, another aquatic biologist 1, works in southeastern New York where the Catskill Fish Hatchery in Sullivan County stocks 350,000 yearling brown trout each year in public waters across the state.
Coulter said he inherited his passion for fishing and aquatic resources from his grandfather, and enjoys sharing his enthusiasm at DEC events.
“As part of the ‘I Fish NY’ fishing outreach program, we have been delivering fishing gear to summer camps and training camp counselors so they can fish with the kids. It’s a train the trainer program. On weekends, we hold free family fishing days where we distribute fishing poles to families,” Coutler said.
Wells, who presents public outreach programs throughout a nine-county area that stretches from Rensselaer to Otsego and Delaware counties, added, “We show the people who attend what is in their water and answer questions. Some people ask what type of fish they should put in their pond and how to manage it, and others what to know where to go to fish for a certain species. We get calls and emails from people who want information about getting a license. We provide a service to a lot of people.
“Our outreach programs help us connect with the public. Some adults haven’t seen a live fish or crayfish before. Outreach programs help get the word out about what we do and the resources we have.
“The reward for this kind of job is actually doing the job.”
As professionals, Wells and Coulter may monitor fish by placing a small electrical current into the water which temporarily stuns fish to net them more easily. This is done in shallow streams using a backpack electro fishing unit, and a boat electro fishing unit is used to monitor lakes, ponds and reservoirs.
After the fish are netted, they are placed in a pail, then measured for length, weighed, and sometime tested for age using a scale sample. Typically, they are released back into the water where they were caught.
Kozlowski said the surveys include testing for fish contaminants.
“Most waters in the state fall into a general health advisory, and the state Department of Health issues the fish consumption advisories in specific locations,” he said.
Wells and Coulter said it was important to be part of protecting the state’s resources for everyone and future generations, and for people to be cognizant of their environment.
“Walking along a stream, we often see a lot of garbage that doesn’t need to be there. People need to change their lifestyles and it is not happening enough.
“We do have an occupation that is fun and rewarding, but the workload can be heavy,” Wells said. “I would estimate there may only be a few thousand aquatic biologists in the country, but more aquatic consulting firms are filling the gaps. Kids who want to go into this line of work must stay in school and be focused.”
Coulter added, “Protecting the resources of New York state is vital in so many ways. It’s a pleasure to safeguard what our state has to offer.”