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Trawl-based assessment of Lake Ontario pelagic prey fishes including Alewife and Rainbow Smelt

March 1, 2017

Managing Lake Ontario fisheries in an ecosystem-context, requires reliable data on the status and trends of prey fishes that support predator populations. We report on the community and population dynamics of Lake Ontario pelagic prey fishes, based on bottom trawl surveys. We emphasize information that supports the international Lake Ontario Committee’s Fish Community Objectives. In 2016, 142 bottom trawls were collected in U.S. waters, and for the first time 46 trawls were conducted in Canadian waters. A total of 420,386 fish from 24 species were captured. Alewife were 89% of the total fish catch and 93% of the pelagic prey fish catch. The Rainbow Smelt abundance index in U.S. waters increased slightly in 2016 relative to 2015. Interestingly, the Rainbow Smelt abundance index from tows in Canadian waters was 35% higher than the U.S. index. Abundances of Threespine Stickleback and Emerald Shiners in both U.S. and Canadian waters were low in 2016 relative to their peak abundances in the late 1990s, but Cisco abundance indices suggest a recent increase in their abundance. This year, the reported Alewife abundance time series was truncated to only include values since 1997, which were collected with the same trawl and eliminated the need to adjust values for different trawls. The 2016 adult Alewife abundance index was the second lowest abundance ever observed in the time series. This value was expected to decline from the 2015 value since the indices of juvenile Alewife were low in 2014 and the lowest ever observed in 2015. The fall condition index of adult Alewife increased in 2016 and is consistent with lower abundance and reduced competition for zooplankton resources. The 2016 Age-1 Alewife index increased relative to 2014 and 2015, and suggested lake conditions were favorable for Age-1 survival and growth during the summer of 2015 and the 2015-2016 winter. Interestingly, the catch of adult and Age1 Alewife was higher in trawls conducted in Canadian waters relative to U. S. waters. The larger trawl catches in Canadian waters suggest there may be important spatial differences in lake-wide distribution of prey fishes in April when trawling is conducted. Future surveys should to continue to sample at the whole-lake scale to understand the year to year variability in spatial distribution and the physical or biotic factors driving those distribution differences.

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