SUNY-Cobleskill has role in bringing back rare fish

The blue pike once roamed New York’s Lake Erie before it was declared extinct in 1975.

The blue pike once roamed New York’s Lake Erie before it was declared extinct in 1975.

Throughout history, pollution, over-fishing and structures such as dams have made it difficult for many fish species to survive. Two dozen species that once thrived in New York state are listed as endangered, threatened or of special concern — eight of them are no longer found in the state.

Students and staff at SUNY-Cobleskill and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are working to bring some of these threatened species back to New York’s waters, and the college’s Endangered Fishes Hatchery is playing an important role in the work.

Last week, a team from the college and the DEC went to the St. Lawrence River in a project to harvest the fertilized eggs of lake sturgeon — one of three species Cobleskill students are helping to recover. Listed as threatened throughout its native home by the American Fisheries Society, the lake sturgeon is one of New York’s biggest freshwater fish.

Several male and female fish are collected at the river and the eggs and sperm extracted, mixed together and the fish returned to the river unharmed.

The fertilized eggs are transported to SUNY-Cobleskill’s hatchery where they will be hatched and reared to six inches in length. They will then be placed back in waters including the St. Lawrence and Niagara rivers, Oneida and Cayuga Lakes, Lake Champlain, Oswegatchie River, Grasse River and Black Lake.

SUNY-Cobleskill professor John R. Foster, chairman of the fisheries and wildlife department, joined biologists from the DEC gathering sturgeon as part of the difficult task of getting the ancient strain of fish to mate.

These fish, Foster said in a prepared statement, “deserve our help.”

“Sturgeons are living fossils, being one of the most ancient freshwater fishes on earth. Over the past 200 million years sturgeons have changed little and fossil sturgeons look just like those living today,” Foster said.

Decades ago, some sturgeon were considered a nuisance in New York because the hard-bodied, powerful fish damaged the nets of commercial fishing boats, said Lisa Holst, a DEC marine biologist working in the state’s endangered fish program.

They were killed without discretion, particularly the shortnose sturgeon, which took on the name “Albany beef” because of its flavor when smoked, Holst said.

Now, all three benefit from various stages of protection, and biologists are just now taking the next step in their work to bring the lake sturgeon back to a healthy population. The time-consuming work started around 1995 and biologists only now will be able to determine if it’s been successful.

slow process

The lake sturgeon take 15 years to grow to maturity before they can breed, and the females don’t produce eggs every year.

SUNY-Cobleskill’s hatchery got involved in the sturgeon work when the state found several cases of viral hemorrhagic septicemia, or VHS, killing fish in the Great Lakes.

The DEC was making use of its various fish hatcheries to grow sturgeon until questions arose about whether the sturgeon eggs could be affected by the disease. The DEC halted its egg-take program and started using SUNY-Cobleskill’s facilities to let the fish grow because there the fish can be quarantined in a closed system.

“What we waited for was to find out if we can disinfect eggs and have a reasonable certainty we’re not bringing a disease into our hatchery. [VHS] is very difficult to get rid of,” said Holst.

“Cobleskill has the ability to have a quarantined facility. They’ve become very skilled and experienced and they have that great student work force,” Holst said.

SUNY-Cobleskill is also raising paddlefish, another ancient fish no longer found in New York. One of North America’s bigger fish, they grow to as much as five feet long and can weigh up to 60 pounds. Like the sturgeon, its lineage is millions of years long.

Once common to central U.S. rivers, they’ve disappeared from New York, Pennsylvania and Maryland due to overharvesting, sediment and dams, Foster said.

The fish are brought in from Kentucky State University — populations of paddlefish are stable in Kentucky. Once researchers determine the most efficient way to rear the species, they’ll be reintroduced into the Allegheny River.

SUNY-Cobleskill also is the only facility in New York state being used for a project to restore the rare gilt darter to the Allegheny River.

Years ago, gilt darters roamed New York’s portion of the river, but the Kinzua Dam in northern Pennsylvania, completed in 1965 for flood control and hydroelectric power, prevents the fish from migrating north to New York to spawn.

About 70 years ago, gilt darters were declared gone from New York state altogether.

Despite the dam’s interruption, the DEC and SUNY-Cobleskill are expecting to bring the fish back to New York.

“We’re leap-frogging them into our waters. They’re not going to spread back naturally,” Holst said.

Working with Tennessee-based Conservation Fisheries Inc., or CFI, a non-profit dedicated to bringing back threatened species in the Southern U.S., SUNY-Cobleskill will get some of the gilt darters and work in tandem with CFI to find ways to raise the fish in captivity, and then introduce them into the wild.

“This is to undo something we kind of caused unconsciously,” said Doug Carlson, head of the state’s Endangered Fish Project.

“We’re really fortunate that our resources are really as good as they are so we can get these darters from Tennessee,” Carlson said.

The gilt darter only grows to about three inches long and, unlike the long-living sturgeon, has a life span of two to three years. The colorful fish was last caught in New York back in 1937.

And though the tiny fish isn’t considered important as food or for ornamental fish, their continued survival is considered important.

“It’s another piece of reconstructing that healthy fish community. You try to keep all those links in the chain there as much as you can,” Holst said.

complex issues

The gilt darter project is in the early stages and scientists are already facing difficulties getting them to breed, said Patrick Rakes, a co-director at CFI.

They’ve only been able to produce a few fish, Rakes said, and even that success is considered limited.

“One of the odd things we’ve run into is that almost all of them are males. With very few females, it makes it kind of hard,” he said.

Rakes said he can only speculate that pollutants are affecting the fish and skewing sex ratios.

“We are just developing the protocols,” and methods to successfully raise the gilt darters, he said.

There isn’t a great deal of financial support for the work, but he said it’s important even if the tiny gilt darters aren’t a food or recreation fish.

“They’re indicators. They’re the more sensitive fish, the ones that are usually rare that are the best indicators of water quality and what we’re doing to our waters.”

For Rakes, the work reinforces his perspective on the value of life on Earth. “What right do we have to eliminate anything that took many years to be created or evolve?”

Foster said, “I think paddlefish and sturgeon have a lot of pizazz to them, but the gilt darters are almost inconsequential. Nobody would even notice them missing.”

Focusing on the little fish helps gives students a different perspective. “Cobleskill’s endangered fishes hatchery provides a unique opportunity for environmentally conscious undergraduate students to make a significant contribution to restore endangered and threatened fish in the Northeast,” Foster said.

SUNY-Cobleskill’s aquaculture facility also features a 40,000 gallon trout and salmon hatchery, warm water hatcheries for tilapia, prawn and freshwater lobster, ornamental tropical fish and earthen ponds for raising walleye, bass and bait fish.

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