Managing Lake Ontario fisheries in an ecosystem-context requires prey fish community and population data. Since 1978, multiple annual bottom trawl surveys have quantified prey fish dynamics to inform management relative to published Fish Community Objectives. In 2017, two whole-lake surveys collected 341 bottom trawls (spring: 204, fall: 137), at depths from 8-225m, and captured 751,350 fish from 29 species. Alewife were 90% of the total fish catch while Deepwater Sculpin, Round Goby, and Rainbow Smelt comprised the majority of the remaining total catch (3.8, 3.1, and 1.1% respectively). The adult Alewife abundance index for US waters increased in 2017 relative to 2016, however the index for Canadian waters declined. Adult Alewife condition, assessed by the predicted weight of a 165 mm fish (6.5 inches), declined in 2017 from record high values observed in spring 2016. Spring 2017 Alewife condition was slightly less than the 10-year average, but the fall value was well below the 10-year average, likely due to increased Age-1 Alewife abundance. The Age-1 Alewife abundance index was the highest observed in 40 years, and 8-times higher than the previous year. The Age-1 index estimates Alewife reproductive success the preceding year. The warm summer and winter of 2016 likely contributed to the large year class. In contrast the relatively cool 2017 spring and cold winter may result in a lower than average 2017 year class. Abundance indices for Rainbow Smelt, Cisco, and Emerald Shiner either declined or remained at low levels in 2017. Pelagic prey fish diversity continues to be low since a single species, Alewife, dominates the catch.
Deepwater Sculpin were the most abundant benthic prey fish in 2017 because Round Goby abundance declined sharply from 2016. Slimy Sculpin density continued to decline and the 2017 biomass index for US waters was the lowest ever observed. Prior to Round Goby proliferation, juvenile Slimy Sculpin comprised ~10% of the Slimy Sculpin catch, but since 2004, the percent of juveniles within the total catch is less than 0.5%, suggesting Round Goby are limiting Slimy Sculpin reproduction. Despite Slimy Sculpin declines, benthic prey fish community diversity has increased as Deepwater Sculpin and Round Goby comprise more of the community.