Eighty-three community members learned about the Onondaga Lake fishery and spotted wildlife along the lakeshore during an Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps event on Sunday, February 25. The afternoon began with “Onondaga Lake: A Treasured Ecosystem Returning,” a presentation by renowned Onondaga Lake fisheries expert Neil Ringler, Ph.D. After the presentation, Onondaga Audubon Society members led a birding walk along the Onondaga Creekwalk.
Ringler is an avid fisherman in his free time and is pictured above holding a largemouth bass caught in Onondaga Lake. He has studied the Onondaga Lake fishery for more than 30 years and is vice provost at the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry (SUNY-ESF).
Ringler discussed improvements at Onondaga Lake and nearby tributaries that are providing restored habitat for fish, birds, invertebrates, and plants, and how research and monitoring will continue to guide improvements to the ecosystem. According to SUNY-ESF, up to 64 species of fish have been recorded in Onondaga Lake, including brown trout, lake sturgeon, and Atlantic salmon.
Left: SUNY-ESF undergraduate research assistant Madison Searles holds a lake sturgeon caught in Onondaga Lake during a SUNY-ESF study in 2016.
Right: A brown trout caught in Onondaga Lake during a SUNY-ESF study in 2017.
Q&A with Dr. Neil Ringler
During the time that you have studied Onondaga Lake, what have you seen happen to the fish population?
SUNY-ESF began studies of Onondaga Lake in 1986. Over the past 30-plus years, we have caught 64 species of fish and typically about 40 species in a given field season. The fish population is very diverse. Over the years it has shifted from a large number of plankton-eating fish, such as gizzard shad, to fish- and aquatic insect-eating species, such as walleye, largemouth bass, and smallmouth bass. This has led to increased public interest in fishing in the lake.
A tiger muskie caught in Onondaga Lake by Anne Burnham as part of her SUNY-ESF research in 2013.
We catch a large number (35 in 2013) of lake sturgeon; the largest we’ve identified measured 71 inches. We also find large brown trout (up to 25 inches) living in the lake about 10 months of the year. SUNY-ESF and Carpenter’s Brook Fish Hatchery have stocked juvenile Atlantic salmon in Nine Mile Creek for the past five years; a few that were caught had grown to nearly 22 inches.
Can you describe SUNY-ESF’s fish program?
Each summer, graduate students conduct a survey of fish species in Onondaga Lake. About 35 graduate students have created thesis projects, and 20 students have collected data. Several graduates are now working on Onondaga Lake’s restoration.
Additionally, about 100 undergraduates have participated aboard our electro-shocker boat or on another research boat. We have recently begun studying the response of fish to newly installed habitat structures, a key component of Honeywell’s lake bottom restoration efforts.
Sixty-two porcupine cribs have been installed in Onondaga Lake. A porcupine crib is a fish habitat structure that provides shelter and feeding opportunities for small fish.
One major finding of the program is the expansion of underwater vegetation from only five species in the 1980s to at least 23 species today.
More than 80 percent of near-shore areas are covered by plants, compared to about 5 percent in 1986. We see a larger population of invertebrates, such as damselflies, in these areas. We expect invertebrate numbers and diversity to increase as a result of the lake cleanup and new lake bottom.
Atlantic salmon are now seen in the lake. What does that say about the lake’s health, and are there other species that have returned that you are surprised to see?
This is a result of the improvement in Onondaga Lake’s water quality. Atlantic salmon were historically the only native salmon species found in Onondaga Lake; their return represents a great accomplishment made possible by the many enhancements made to the ecosystem.
Several bird species utilizing newly restored wetlands along Onondaga Lake’s western shoreline.
Honeywell has created or restored nearly 90 acres of wetlands in the lake and nearby tributaries. How do these improved habitat conditions help support a healthy fishery?
In addition to contributing to improved water quality, wetlands provide valuable feeding and spawning habitat for a variety of species. We are envisioning that the restored wetlands will assist with the continued recovery of northern pike, which are present in the lake in large sizes already.
The Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps has been involved in restoring some of the wetlands by building bird boxes and participating in other conservation efforts. What can the community do to continue to support the lake improvements?
The most important thing is for the community to go out there and enjoy the lake – sail, fish, hike, bird watch, and chase butterflies. There are few examples nationwide of a major city adjacent to a marvelous waterbody like Onondaga Lake, and it represents literally thousands of years of vital human history of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy.
The cooperation among SUNY-ESF faculty, students, the Syracuse community, and Honeywell has been a phenomenal success story. We were happy that early studies at SUNY-ESF helped to guide some of the shoreline restoration plans. The sophistication of the dredging and capping program is a textbook case study in tackling a difficult, centuries-long problem. The current lake monitoring work is important to help ensure that the recovery is documented in a fashion that will be useful to solving future comparable environmental problems worldwide.
About the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps
The Corps seeks to inspire future stewards of Onondaga Lake and its watershed through a hands-on, experience-based program that offers citizens and organizations the opportunity to participate in activities that help restore and sustain Onondaga Lake and its value as an Important Bird Area.
Partners of the Corps include Audubon New York, Montezuma Audubon Center, Onondaga Audubon Society, Parsons, OBG, Anchor QEA, Bond Schoeneck & King, State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, Habitat Gardening in Central New York, and Honeywell.
To learn more about the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps or participate in future activities, please contact firstname.lastname@example.org, visit http://ny.audubon.org/OLCC, or call 315-365-3588. Schools, community groups, local organizations, and individuals are welcome. Like the Corps on Facebook or visit YouTube to learn more.
For more information on the Onondaga Lake cleanup, visit www.lakecleanup.com.
View more photographs of the Onondaga Lake Conservation Corps.