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Hooked on Habitat

Sportfishing Success Depends on Healthy Lake

"If you're concerned with Lake Erie and you focus only on the lake, you've missed the boat."

Bill Stanley, director of conservation for the Conservancy in Ohio

By Randy Edwards

The morning’s weather report had promised light winds and calm water, but the constant seesaw sway of Captain Paul Pacholski’s 30-foot fishing boat suggested that the report had been optimistic.

“We’ve got 30-mile-an-hour winds right now, and it seems to be building,” he said, grinning at the darkening sky at the stern. “Weather is not an exact science — it’s a lot like fishing.”

As a sportfishing charter-boat captain for 27 years, Pacholski knows about both. Every day from early April to early November, he ferries boatloads of fishing enthusiasts from a marina near Toledo to the fishing grounds of Lake Erie’s western basin in search of walleye, smallmouth bass and yellow perch.

“The western basin is important because it is so biologically rich,” he says. “Its average depth is 24 feet, so you have warm, nutrient-rich water that holds an incredible food base. The larger the food base, the more top predators we have.”

Threats to Lake Erie

Growing up on the lake, he witnessed many changes, including the vast improvements to water quality brought about by the 1972 Clean Water Act and other regulations. But spending every day on the water gives Pacholski a first-hand look at many of the threats facing Lake Erie, including:

  • Invasive species, like Asian carp that appear poised to enter the Great Lakes from the Mississippi River basin;
  • Sedimentation and excess nutrients;
  • Damming of rivers walleye use for spawning; and
  • Excess algae that coats the surface of the lake, fed by the nutrients washing off the farmland of the Maumee watershed.

The Nature Conservancy knows how important Lake Erie is to both people and nature, and our scientists share Pacholski’s concerns. In Ohio and throughout the Great Lakes, we’re working on habitat protection and public policy initiatives, especially focused on two important tributaries – the Maumee and the Grand Rivers.

Fishing for Solutions

Recent efforts to protect Lake Erie include: 

  • We’re protecting and restoring wetland and floodplain habitat in the Maumee and Grand River watersheds – buying land along the Grand River and controlling non-native, invasive plants like common reed in both areas;
  • We’re working with state and federal regulators to track the spread of Asian carp, using a testing procedure pioneered by a Conservancy scientist, and we’re helping to identify the best way to control the fish;
  • We’re working with farmers in the Maumee watershed to reduce polluted runoff by installing an improved form of drainage ditch;
  • We’re financially supporting research that is informing the development of water-use regulations required by the Great Lakes Compact, an interstate agreement designed to safeguard the quality and quantity of fresh water in the Great Lakes; and 
  • We're advocating for improved storm-water-management regulations along the Grand River and other Lake Erie tributaries.
Surf and Turf

Much of the Conservancy’s work to protect Lake Erie takes place miles away from the lake, and there is good reason for that, explains Bill Stanley, director of conservation for the Conservancy in Ohio.

“If you’re concerned with Lake Erie and you focus only on the lake, you’ve missed the boat,” he says. “There are things happening 100 miles upstream on the Maumee River that influence algae blooms and beach closings in the western basin.

The Conservancy is working with public agencies and other conservation groups to restore the natural interactions between the lake and the rivers and wetlands that empty into it.

“You can't have a healthy walleye population in an unhealthy ecosystem, and you can't have a healthy ecosystem unless all components of the system are effectively linked and functioning properly – upland forests, agricultural fields, tributaries, wetlands, near-shore and open lake areas,” says Dr. Jeffrey Reutter, director of Ohio State University's F.T. Stone Laboratory and a member of the Conservancy's Ohio board of trustees. “The Conservancy’s programs are protecting the components of the system and restoring the links." 

Randy Edwards is a senior media relations manager for The Nature Conservancy

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