Muskellunge Management: Fifty Years of Cooperation Among Anglers, Scientists, and Fisheries Biologists

Long-Term Trends of St. Lawrence River Muskellunge: Effects of Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia and Round Goby Proliferation Creates Uncertainty for Population Sustainability

John M. Farrell, Rodman G. Getchell, Kevin L. Kapuscinski, and Steven R. LaPan


Abstract.— Long-term research indicates a significant and ongoing decline within the upper St. Lawrence River Muskellunge Esox masquinongy population. Index surveys show a sharp reduction in catch of both spawning adults and age-0 Muskellunge, and catch rates by anglers have similarly declined while harvest remains low. Other changes associated with population decline include presence of fewer female adult Muskellunge and a change in adult Muskellunge size structure (increase in proportion of fish <1,016 mm) in addition to more large individuals greater than 1,372 mm. A significant adult die-off occurred from 2005 to 2008 (103 adults recovered in U.S. and Canadian waters) concomitant with an outbreak of viral hemorrhagic septicemia (VHS). These population changes were also temporally correlated with detection and proliferation of invasive Round Goby Neogobius melanostomus, a known VHS virus (VHSV) reservoir, egg predator, and competitor with native fishes. Comparisons of index netting before and after VHSV and Round Goby invasions suggest a direct link to the decline, but because these are correlations, we can only explore these effects. To examine the viability of Muskellunge nursery sites, we repeated survival studies conducted in the early 1990s with experimental releases of advanced fry at four locations during 2013–2015. Findings indicate contribution to age-0 populations, but catches poststocking (wild and stocked) were lower compared to the 1990s. We review information regarding potential stressors, including VHSV and Round Goby invasion, and conclude that their combined effects have created significant uncertainty and challenges to sustainable management of the Muskellunge population. In response, the St. Lawrence River Muskellunge management plan should be updated with a focus on restoration of the declining Muskellunge stock. Recommended actions target advancing conservation and restoration of critical habitat, restoring lost subpopulations, and reducing mortality associated with angling (e.g., from handling and harvest).