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e s f home link - e s f college of environmental science and forestry

Heat spells doom for muskies

ESF Dr. John Farrell to study die-off


Friday, June 17, 2005
OUTDOORS WRITER - Syracuse Post-Standard

Experts are blaming the weather for the recent deaths of dozens of muskellunge in the upper St. Lawrence River.

Muskie corpses started bobbing in the currents and washing up on shorelines in the Thousand Islands region about two weeks ago. State fisheries biologists, university researchers and fishing guides collected as many as they could, and saved the freshest specimens for post-mortems at Cornell University's Animal Health Laboratory.

By Monday afternoon, the preliminary count had risen to 25 on the American side of the river and 47 on the Canadian side. No doubt many more dead muskies are still out there, drifting downstream and rapidly decomposing.

Dr. John Farrell, who directs the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry's Thousand Islands Biological Field Station off Clayton, said the recovered fish he's aware of measured between 37 and 56 inches in length.

Many of the muskies were egg-filled females. They apparently perished during their spawning run, when cool May weather abruptly gave way to a heat wave that toasted the shallows in river bays.

Veterinarians who examined the carcasses at Cornell University believe the rapid rise in water temperatures weakened the muskies' immune systems and made them vulnerable to a bacterial infection that was the direct cause of death.

Farrell has intensively studying the mating and migratory habits of St. Lawrence muskies since the late 1980s, when he was a SUNY-ESF graduate student.

"It's sad to see this after all the work that's gone into the fishery," he said.

In addition to the ongoing research by SUNY-ESF scientists, Farrell was referring to regulatory changes adopted by the state Department of Environmental Conservation and voluntary catch-and-release programs championed by local guides' associations.

Combined, those initiatives were responsible for dramatic recovery of the Thousand Islands muskellunge population. During the last several seasons, river regulars reported numerous catches of muskies in the 50- to 60-inch range - trophy specimens that were rarely encountered during the 1970s and '80s.

"The worst thing about this (die-off)," said 1000 Islands Bait Store owner Dave Berger, "is that those dead fish 44 inches and up were 15 or more years old. That tells me it's not going to come back tomorrow."

Berger added, "I've been here since 1962 and I've never seen anything like it."

Although calling the long-term impact of the die-off "potentially significant," Farrell said it's too early to declare a disaster.

"Fortunately, we have some things in place that will help us assess it," he said. "This summer, for the 15th year, we'll be seining known muskie nursery sites, so we'll be able to compare this year's reproductive success with others. We also have an angler diary program going, and we're planning to put out trap nets next spring to catch adult fish as they come into spawning areas. Over time, we should be able to tell what impact this die-off really had."

Muskie fishermen, as always, will just have to wait and see.

Story also covered by:

  • Watertown Daily News
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