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July 10, 2013

Orwell Brook Lamprey Barrier: Another Nail in the Exotics’ Coffin
By Spider Rybaak

Pictured at a recent dedication ceremony for the new sea lamprey barrier on Orwell Brook in Oswego County are, from left, Doug Miller, Miller Engineers; Phil Hurlbutt, Chief, NYSDEC Bureau of Fisheries; Paul Sullivan, Division Manager of the Sea Lamprey Control Centre, Fisheries and Oceans Canada; Charles Blaas, advisor to NY and the Great Lakes Fishery Commission; Kasia Mullett, Sea Lamprey Control Program Field Supervisor, US Fish and Wildlife Service; Patricia Riexinger, Director, Division of Fish and Wildlife, NYSDEC; Dale Burkett, Sea Lamprey Program Director for the Great Lakes Fishery Commission; and landowner Karen Sampson Hilton. (Photo by Diane Carlton, NYSDEC.)

OSWEGO COUNTY, NY - Water pollution comes in many forms. The toughest to eradicate is invasive species. The exotic responsible for wreaking more havoc on the Great Lakes fisheries than any other is the sea lamprey. A new barrier/trap on Orwell Creek, a tributary of the Salmon River, the greatest coldwater stream in the Lower 48 States, promises to bring this parasite a giant step closer to eradication.

Native to the Atlantic Ocean, these eel-like critters originally invaded the Great Lakes and NY’s largest Finger Lakes in the 19th century via the Erie Canal. Armed with a round mouth filled with sharp teeth, these aquatic vampires attach themselves to fish and suck out their body fluids. An ambitious adult can kill up to 40 times its weight in trout annually.

The good news is that not all victims die; the bad news is an attack leaves survivors with unsightly scars, rendering them undesirable for table fare, let alone photos and wall mounts. Since anglers spend up to $7 billion annually fishing the Great Lakes, the authorities have been waging war on the parasites for over 50 years.

Things used to be much worse. Back in the 1950s untreated discharges from industry and municipalities and the scourge of lampreys all but wiped out the open water species of the Great Lakes. Surviving smallmouth bass, walleyes, perch, lake and rainbow trout were few, sickly and scarred.

Adding insult to injury, vast schools of alewives, marine exotics with a high tolerance for pollution, ruled the waves. Without predators to control them, their numbers exploded, and each spring saw Lake Ontario’s shoreline littered with smelly, decomposing windrows of alewives.

Environmental awareness during the hippy era led to such dramatic improvements in water quality that folks began going to the beach again. They complained of the stinking mess and the authorities on both sides of the border declared war on the aliens, fighting the alewives by stocking voracious trout and salmon, and fighting the lampreys by spreading chemical pesticides specific to lampreys into natal streams during their spawning runs.

The programs worked, eliminating 90 percent of the lamprey population, according to a paper published by the Great Lakes Fishery Commission, and reducing alewife populations to manageable levels.

While just about everyone praises the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation’s Great Lakes salmonid stocking policy, using chemicals to control lampreys is expensive and is not always popular. So the authorities pulled a less controversial control out of the hat: physical barriers.

In early June, the Great Lakes Fishery Commission and the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation officially opened the Orwell Brook Sea Lamprey Barrier. Orwell and Pekin brooks, tributaries to Lake Ontario’s Salmon River, produce tens of thousands of sea lamprey larvae annually, and this is the first sea lamprey barrier to be constructed for this purpose by New York State and its Great Lakes fishery partners.

How does it work?

Lampreys can’t jump. Designed by Miller Engineers of Syracuse, the barrier/trap on Orwell Brook is adjustable. Its aluminum stop logs are removed after the lamprey spawning run, allowing desirable species access to the length of the brook. Come spring, the logs are replaced, blocking lampreys, but not leaping critters like trout and Atlantic salmon. The sea lamprey trap will be operated by U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service staff from mid-March through mid-July each year.

To play it safe, the brook will be subject to chemical treatments every three years.

Totally wiping out sea lampreys in a lake almost 200 miles long by 50 miles wide is wishful thinking. But barriers like the one on Orwell Brook will reduce their numbers significantly, improving the health of trout and salmon and benefiting anglers and local economies.

For more information on the project, visit dec.ny.gov/animals/7240.html or contact Jessica Barber of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 906-226-1241.

For year-round fishing conditions and Oswego County visitor information, go to visitoswegocounty.com or call 800-248-4FUN.

The sea lamprey belongs to a primitive group of jawless fishes called Agnathans. It feeds on other fish using a suction disk mouth filled with small sharp, rasping teeth and a file-like tongue. (Photo by Diane Carlton, NYSDEC.)

Patricia Riexinger, DEC division director, Fish, Wildlife and Marine Resources, holds a sea lamprey taken at the Orwell Brook sea lamprey barrier. (Photo by Diane Carlson, NYSDEC.)

Spider Rybaak is an award-winning outdoor writer who has been published in more than 20 periodicals. He is the author of “Fishing Eastern New York” and “Fishing Western New York” guide books that cover 429 streams and lakes in New York State. Spider's third book, "Fishing New York's Great Lakes, their Tributaries, and the 1000 Islands Region" (Burford Books) is scheduled for release in February 2014.Contact him at srybaak@yahoo.com Check out his blog at fishingandhuntinginoswego.blogspot.com

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