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Bucket Biology. Stock Fish Ponds Properly - By Mark Cornwell
Thursday, January 27, 2011 at 5:34pm

Why Grandpa Was Wrong

Mark Cornwell is a fisheries professor at SUNY-Cobleskill in Cohleskill, New York. His passion is raising walleye and the I.Q. of fisheries students in the Northeast.

My grandfather's influence resides deep in my soul to this day. Luckily for me, Gramps retired at the young age of 53. By then, I was a Zebco 202 toting ten year old, who lived a short walk down the road. Gramps had the time and I had the fishing pole. Pitch in the incessant nagging ability of a ten year old who wants to fish and you have just the right combination for magic.

If everything went according to my plan, Gramps would say, "Get the spade." That was my green light to race down to the garden, turn over a few patches of earth, pick through roots in rich, aromatic soil, and gently pull those resistant wigglers out and drop them in a coffee can. When we had enough, Gramps and I would head out to one of several local fishing ponds. Usually, we fished those fishing ponds for "sunnies," "black bass" and "calico" or "strawberry bass." On more than one occasion, the "nice one" we caught at the pond would be placed in a five gallon bucket for the return trip from the fishing pond to the swimming pond in the creek behind Gramp's house so that we could "enjoy it" for the summer.

By the title of the article you knew where this was going didn't you?

I wouldn't trade those childhood memories for the last fudgecicle on the planet.

Then I went to college to study fisheries sciences, landed a job in fisheries management and eventually became lucky enough to teach fisheries.

Have you had a watershed moment in your career when you realized conventional knowledge that drove you as a youth was critically flawed? One of those defining moments, those epiphanies?

One of mine was during graduate research. My job as a grad student was to follow local history and populations of alewife, an open water herring, landlocked in Otsego Lake, in Cooperstown, New York. Basically, I was charged with finding efficient and cost effective predators of alewife and determining both alewife population numbers in the lake and impacts they had on the food web.

I started with research. Alewives are native to coastal and estuarine environments and were not supposed to be in Otsego Lake. A colleague published a paper in 1989 that described the alewife in the lake as "An illegal introduction by a private citizen" probably by an angler using them for bait. The end of the lake has a ten-foot dam, so no downstream fish swam into the lake and established the population that way. Presumably, an angler had dumped his bait bucket of 50 or less individual alewife in 1986 after fishing the lake for trout.

What happened next is huge, and affected the entire fish population.

The alewife population erupted like Mt. Pinatubo. By summer of 2002, the alewife population reached a lake wide population of twenty-seven million. Yes, that's 27,000,000!

Along the way, the "sawbellies" (gramp's name for them) began seriously impacting Otsego's delicate, natural ecosystem.

What does this mean to you, dear angler? Stick with me. I'm getting there.

Alewife are opportunistic planktivores feasting on fish eggs, larval fish, insects and zooplankton in open water. This meant the loss of big-bodied zooplankton that had kept the lake clear by grazing planktonic algae. Once alewife overate zooplankton populations, algae bloomed in open water, making the lake green (it used to be blue). When the algae run its cycles, it dies and falls to the bottom. It rapidly decomposes and uses oxygen in deeper water at a faster rate than in the past. Native populations of cold-water fish are forced to move higher into the water column into an increasingly small habitat as the summer wears on.

Not good. Cold-water fish compete with cool water fish and the entire system suffers.

Almost single handedly this baitfish caused the decline of cisco, lake whitefish, smelt and large zooplankton like Daphnia. Loss of lake clarity disturbed lifelong human residents of the lake who were used to the sparkling blue, pristine waters they enjoyed for years.

Essentially, one individual with a bait bucket in hand had pushed an entire lake ecosystem into a higher nutrient status and disrupted the entire system. This bucket biologist changed everything in this 4,000-acre lake.

To date, millions of dollars have been spent to try and reverse the eutrophication trend in this once blue lake.

Here's a broader example in New York. Our famous Adirondacks once contained hoards of native brook trout. Today, only a fraction of the original brook trout habitat remains unpolluted without competing fish species. Unwitting introduction of bass, sunfish and baitfish have caused the demise of New York's native char. How did competing fish get there? People. Period. Was this action illegal? Probably.

Most state agencies have laws against moving fish from one body of water to another. New York's law reads like this "Fish or fish eggs shall not be placed in any waters of the state unless a permit is first obtained from the department. (Statutory Authority: ECL 1105-07. www.dec.state.ny.us). And in Texas: "Except as provided in these sections it shall be an offense if any person places fish, shellfish, or aquatic plants into public water without a valid permit issued by the department authorizing that activity" (Texas Administrative Code Title 31. Part 2, Chapter 57. subchapter C. rule 57.252. www.info.sos.state.tx.us).

Man. Cornwell is getting preachy! Quoting all kinds of laws! What this boils down to is simple: We are NOT supposed to be moving fish around willy nilly, and if we do there might be unforeseen catastrophic consequences that can cause huge problems to entire ecosystems. Best bet is to consult your DEC, DNR or local fisheries agency. These laws are in place to protect our fisheries and we have an obligation not screw things up more than they already are. Grandpa was wrong.

Do we have problems that originate elsewhere? You bet! We have multiple vectors of nuisance and exotic fishes. But the question I ask myself is this: "Can I do something about my actions to limit the spread of exotics?" Yes, as avid anglers and pond owners we can take action.
What might this mean? Well, we may try to find out and then follow laws that have been put in place to protect native fishes and habitats. No moving fish from my fishing pond to my neighbors. No bringing home fish from the fishing pond to the swimming pond. No dumping the bait bucket into the lake after we are done fishing.

Give careful thought to your stocking and restocking plan, dear pondmeister. Just because one fish might be today's rage, think about how that fish might impact your pond or your fishery.

And, think how it might affect native fisheries in surrounding watersheds, should your new darlings escape and populate.

Resist the temptation to catch fish out of a nearby fishing lake and stock the backyard fish pond. One or two giant largemouth bass could completely disrupt your balanced fish stocks. Random acts lead to calculated results, nature's way.

Because of "bucket biology" New Yorker's now need to prove the fish we are stocking into fishing ponds are free of at least six and maybe nine different diseases. New York now has widespread viral hemorrhagic septicemia, a nasty little virus that kills waves of fish in our Great Lakes. We can take action. Follow the rules of your state. If a permit is required, get it. Different states have different laws. Check with your pond management professional to understand what you can, and should, do.

So, did my fishing escapades and lawlessness with granddad cause problems? Who knows? I bet native brook trout clinging to life in the swimming pond in Gramps back yard really did not appreciate the occasional 18" largemouth bass I tossed in there each summer. Guilty. Cuff me and stuff me.

But, those warm summer days, worm dirt and flopping bass fanned a flickering flame of passion deep inside. Had I not spent that fabulous time learning to fish with my grandfather I probably would not have chosen the courses that have lead here. And, you may not have had the opportunity to think about the consequences of what you haven't done yet.

POND BOSS Magazine is the world’s leading resource for fish, pond and fisheries management information including discussions on muddy water, raising trophy fish, fish feeding, building a pond, algae control and more. Check us out at www.pondboss.com or contact Bob Lusk, the Pond Boss himself, at 903-564-5372. His books, Basic Pond Management, Raising Trophy Bass and Perfect Pond, Want One, may be purchased by calling 800-687-6075 or ordering online at www.pondboss.com