From Catastrophe to Recovery: Stories of Fishery Management Success

Lake Ontario Deepwater Sculpin Recovery: An Unexpected Outcome of Ecosystem Change

Brian C. Weidel, Michael J. Connerton, Maureen G. Walsh, Jeremy P. Holden, Kristen T. Holeck, and Brian F. Lantry


Abstract.—Fish population recoveries can result from ecosystem change in the absence of targeted restoration actions. In Lake Ontario, native Deepwater Sculpin Myoxocephalus thompsonii were common in the late 1800s, but by the mid-1900s the species was possibly extirpated. During this period, mineral nutrient inputs increased and piscivore abundance declined, which increased the abundance of the nonnative planktivores Alewife Alosa pseudoharengus and Rainbow Smelt Osmerus mordax. Deepwater Sculpin larvae are pelagic and vulnerable to predation by planktivores. Annual bottom trawl surveys did not capture Deepwater Sculpin from 1978 to 1995 (n = 6,666 tows) despite sampling appropriate habitat (trawl depths: 7–170 m). The absence of observations during this time resulted in an elevated conservation status for the species, but no restoration actions were initiated. In 1996, three individuals were caught in bottom trawls, the first observed since 1972. Since then, their abundance has increased, and in 2017, they were the second most abundant Lake Ontario prey fish. The food-web changes that occurred from 1970 through the 1990s contributed to this recovery. Alewife and Rainbow Smelt abundance declined during this period due to predation by stocked salmonids and legislation that reduced nutrient inputs and food web productivity. In the 1990s, proliferation of nonnative, filter-feeding dreissenid mussels dramatically increased water clarity. As light penetration increased, the early-spring depth distribution of Alewife and Rainbow Smelt shifted deeper, away from larval Deepwater Sculpin habitat. The intentional and unintentional changes that occurred in Lake Ontario were not targeted at Deepwater Sculpin restoration but resulted in conditions that favored the species’ recovery. While standard surveys documented the recovery, more diverse information (e.g., observations in deep habitats and early-life stages) would have improved our understanding of why the species recovered when it did. Annual Lake Ontario trawl surveys have collaboratively expanded their spatial extent and diversified habitat sampled, based on lessons learned from the Deepwater Sculpin recovery.