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Fish and fisheries in Oneida Lake

Tony VanDeValk, Tom Brooking, Randy Jackson, Lars Rudstam, Peter Jordan, Maxwell Vasicek (Funded by NYS DEC)

The studies of the fisheries of Oneida Lake were initiated in 1956 by the station’s first director John Forney as an assessment of the status of the lake’s important walleye and yellow perch fisheries. The program has enjoyed continuous funding from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC) for over 65 years and has expanded to lower trophic levels  representing a true ecosystem approach to understanding the dynamics of the lake’s fish community and fisheries (see below for limnological studies). Ongoing studies on Oneida Lake include detailed studies of walleye, yellow perch, and white perch from larval to adult life stages, assessment of offshore and inshore fish community composition, pelagic fish abundance (shad, shiners), and annual creel surveys. Oneida Lake is the State’s third most heavily fished lake, and data collected by Field Station staff provide timely information to NYSDEC managers to ensure sustainable fishing opportunities, particularly for walleye, yellow perch and smallmouth bass. The data series has also allowed important insights into the response of the fishery and the ecosystem to perturbations such as exotic species and climate change. We documented fundamental shifts in fish community composition resulting from increases in water clarity associated with zebra mussels. The double-crested cormorant had profound impacts on walleye and yellow perch, and our studies of these impacts have informed cormorant management throughout their range. Warming water temperatures may be contributing to increased production of largemouth and smallmouth bass, gizzard shad and other species near the northern extent of their range. The round goby became established in the lake in 2014 and densities remained high through 2021.  Gobies appeared in the diets of most of our more common fish species and were also foraged upon by cormorants. After an initial decline in angler catch rates after the goby invasion in 2016, catch rates rebounded and have been high through 2021. We will have an excellent opportunity to continue assessing the impacts of this new invasive on the lake’s fish and fisheries in the upcoming years. 

Bythotrephes longimanus, the spiny water flea, is another new invader that arrived in 2019 and is a common food item of both young and older yellow perch and white perch. The burrowing mayfly (Hexagenia) returned in early 2010s after having been absent from our sampling since 1969 and is increasingly important in fish diets. Walleye continue to be the most popular sport fish in Oneida Lake. Bass also provide a popular fishery, and typically account for 25-30% of the targeted angling effort based on anglers interviewed during our June/July creel survey, another sign of change from the days when walleye anglers comprised most of the lake users. A walleye mark-recapture population estimate in 2019 produced an estimated adult walleye population of just over 1,000,000 fish, the first time this mark has been achieved since 1986.  We estimate that the walleye population remained over 1 million through 2021.  As Oneida Lake has changed, so too has the fish community and the fishery, and our studies continue to expand our efforts to understand the dynamics of this economically important resource.by cormorants. After an initial decline in angler catch rates after the goby invasion in 2016, catch rates rebounded and have been high through 2021. We will have an excellent opportunity to continue assessing the impacts of this new invasive on the lake’s fish and fisheries in the upcoming years.