Salmon in the Columbia River, Oregon

Return of a Legend

Reimagining a New York Fishery

In Norman Maclean’s novella, A River Runs Through It, the movement of water is a metaphor for the passage of time, and fishing represents a symbolic expression of one’s eternal search for understanding. “Poets talk about the ‘Spots of Time’ but it is really fishermen who experience eternity compressed into a moment,” writes Maclean. “No one can tell what a spot of time is until suddenly the whole world is a fish and the fish is gone.”

In western New York state, the sinuous tributaries of Lake Ontario, fed also by flow from the historic Erie Canal, create a similarly mythic connection of waters and fish, representing home to a world-class salmon and trout fishery. Each fall and into winter, these streams abound with massive trout and salmon that surge upstream from Lake Ontario into streams small enough to cast a fishing line across. Just below the surface lies a diverse population of Chinook and coho salmon, Brown trout and rainbow trout, or “steelhead” driven upstream into narrow waters by their instinct to complete an epic life history and journey to their natal spawning grounds. Every fall, throngs of eager anglers await the arrival of these lake denizens into their favorite streams such as Oak Orchard, Sandy, Eighteenmile and Johnson Creeks.

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The movement of trout and salmon from Lake Ontario into tributary streams can be stimulated by high water events such as a rainstorm or regulated releases of water from the Erie Canal, which is hydraulically connected to several Lake Ontario tributaries. In addition to drawing fish into the tributaries, the scheduled higher flows also create more predictable angling opportunities, provide fish cover and opportunities for fish to disperse throughout the stream, and offer a more enjoyable angling experience. The “Reimagine the Canals” team at the New York State Canal Corporation saw an opportunity to support and enhance the tributary fisheries by scheduling releases of water from the Erie Canal during the fall salmon and trout season.

In 2020, the New York State Canal Corporation (with input from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation), supported by HDR, developed a fisheries pilot program to determine if the use of canal infrastructure to mimic “natural” high-flow events would trigger fish to run upstream, thereby resulting in enhanced recreational fishing in Lake Ontario tributaries. From September to December 2020, water releases from water management gates were modified to enhance tributary fisheries. Data collection efforts included collecting discharge data from U.S. Geological Survey gauges, temperature and dissolved oxygen monitoring in the canal and the receiving tributaries, an angler survey to assess the impact of the water releases on the fishing experience along the tributaries, and interviews with stakeholders to provide feedback on the program. Pilot study streams in 2020 included Oak Orchard and Sandy Creek.

Our team was hired by the New York State Canal Corporation/New York Power Authority to provide fisheries technical assistance to the program by evaluating water releases, overseeing a creel survey conducted by SUNY Brockport, conducting stakeholder interviews, preparing recommendations for future seasons, conducting a pilot acoustic study, and preparing a pilot study and final report for the program. The diverse skill sets of our team were used to support the technical and recreational fishing aspects of this unique project.

Evaluation of Project Discharges

The summer and fall of 2020 were exceptionally dry, and prior to the infusion of the supplemental canal water, program streams were near historically low levels. Project stakeholders reported that low water levels negatively impact the fishing experience. Impacts are varied but can include fewer fish attracted to streams and crowding in smaller pools for those returning fish. Due to the resultant fish stress, individuals in pools experience increased angler pressure given the densely stacked fish and reduced catch. Following the release of water primarily from Lake Erie (which is less impacted from drought conditions) through the Erie Canal gates, downstream fishing areas were quickly lifted out of drought conditions and into water levels much better suited for fishing. The ability to release supplemental water from the Erie Canal into streams is a great insurance policy against dry seasons and provides predictable fishing conditions that enhance the angling experience. This water management approach consisted of creating periods of elevated base flow to the tributaries where a moderate amount of supplemental water from the canal was provided, as well as multiple high-flow events where a greater amount of water was provided to simulate a large rainstorm.

To monitor the pilot program releases and put them in the context of historical flows within each stream, available daily discharge data from USGS gauges was reviewed and processed to produce monthly flow exceedance curves and percentile tables for each program stream.

Our scientists used a custom-developed statistical script (or analytical automation) to gather, process, analyze and plot this discharge data. This tool makes analysis efficient and repeatable for future seasons or additional streams. Our team used summarized flow data and the USGS Stream Stats tool to develop informed recommendations for target canal release volumes in the future.

Stakeholder Feedback Interviews

The Reimagine the Canals Fisheries Program was developed by the Canal Corporation staff in close coordination with NYSDEC fisheries biologists and an engaged fisheries stakeholder community. During the 2020 pilot season, our team conducted several interviews with a diverse group of stakeholders affiliated with the fishery and the canal. Stakeholders included fishing guides, a tackle shop owner, active anglers, a county tourism official, the Canal Corporation operations and maintenance lead and a group of NYSDEC fisheries biologists. The opportunity to directly interface with this group of stakeholders was an informative and fulfilling experience. These stakeholders provided constructive feedback on the pilot program releases, schedule and a wealth of information about the fishery. Their feedback was instrumental to the development of recommendations for future seasons.

ARIS Pilot Study

The Reimagine the Canals Fisheries Program provides a unique opportunity to evaluate the movement patterns, timing and number of salmonids entering Lake Ontario tributaries. Direct measurement on the timing and number of salmonids entering tributaries would provide an independent measure of the influence of program flows on fish movements and could help inform future flow programs, as well as provide opportunities for citizen science and public engagement.

In 2020, we performed a pilot study to evaluate options to monitor the movement of fish into Oak Orchard Creek and other tributary streams. The gear selected for evaluation was an Adaptive Resolution Imaging Sonar by Sound Metrics. This acoustic camera uses sound to “see,” which provides a video-like image similar to an HD sonogram and can be used effectively in no light and turbid environments. ARIS systems have been successfully employed to monitor runs of Pacific Salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and Dual Frequency Identification Sonar, a predecessor to ARIS, has been used to monitor the migration of Lake Sturgeon on the Winooski River in Vermont. ARIS imagery can provide a detailed view of underwater environments and has numerous underwater inspection applications (its original intent when first developed by the Navy). Remote sensing gear such as the ARIS does not require capturing, handling or tagging of fish, which is ideal given the recreational value of the study fish and the level of effort involved with tagging studies. The ARIS transducer generally can have an effective monitoring range of up to 30 meters (depending on camera model), which is sufficient to span the width of program tributaries.

The data collected by the ARIS unit provides an engaging, video-like format that may be of interest to members of the public and could promote engagement with the fishery. As an example, students and volunteers have reviewed an underwater video of migrating river herring on Town Brook in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

In December 2020, we conducted a site visit and trial implementation of the ARIS system at Oak Orchard Creek. We surveyed Oak Orchard Creek from the Waterport dam downstream to the main lake for potential locations to install the ARIS system. Consideration was given to site security, intensity of angler use, electrical power, access, position within the watershed, channel width and morphology. We fabricated a custom metal mount system for the ARIS transducer, and the unit was deployed at multiple locations in Oak Orchard Creek. The ARIS unit was able to successfully record the movements of fish through the transducer beam at a variety of ranges. Fish were observed passing upstream and downstream. When deployed along the channel edge in Oak Orchard Creek, the 30 m beam from the ARIS unit could span the width of the river. It is possible to estimate the size of passing fish targets, but based on the resolution of the acoustic video imagery, it is generally not possible (or prudent) to speciate the fish with certainty. In instances where fish are uniquely shaped, species identification can be attempted, but in the current area, fish morphology (shape) was too similar. However, based on the review of the size of swimming motion of passing targets, it is likely possible to identify targets as adult salmonids. Estimated lengths of passing fish were consistent with those of adult salmonids.

Report and Recommendations

We prepared a comprehensive report documenting the 2020 pilot program activities and provided a number of technical and non-technical recommendations for the Canal Corporation to consider during potential future seasons of the Reimagine the Canals Fisheries Program. The recommendations also considered several points raised by the project stakeholders. These recommendations included suggestions for canal release schedules, volumes, flow monitoring, enhancements to public fishing access, continuation of a creel survey, public engagement programs and additional coordination with Environmental Conservation Law Enforcement.

The Reimagine the Canals Fisheries Pilot Program was implemented again during the 2021-22 winter season and incorporated a number of the recommendations in the 2020 report. In 2022, the HDR and Canal Corporation Team completed a State Environmental Quality Review Act assessment for the project, allowing the continued implementation of the program in future years.

Overall, the project represents many important meanings to all those involved. Protecting natural resources by adapting existing infrastructure is a success story for the state and programmatic managers. Improving and protecting the fishery is an important cultural and emotional tie to anglers and those who simply love nature. Finally, for the teams involved, the study represents creative methods, exciting interactions with interested parties and a sense of pride to be part of an excellent program offering so many benefits.


Contact Dave Davis at david.davis [at] (david[dot]davis[at]hdrinc[dot]com) or at +1 (201) 335-9352 for more information.