Feet off the Sand Dunes, Fishin’ the Salmon River (Day 5)

July 29, 2010

As part of the largest collection of freshwater sand dunes in the Great Lakes, the Eastern Lake Ontario Dunes and Wetlands Area (ELODWA) is globally significant [see map, (2) below; and download a full map of the area here - pdf]. Locally, they are the only sand dunes situated on the New York side of Lake Ontario and are the second highest dunes found in northeastern United States (the first being in Cape Cod, Massachusetts). The ELODWA spans approximately 17 miles with nearly 10 of those miles in private ownership and 6 miles available for public access. Sand dunes are important because they act as a buffer for inland wetlands and upland areas, providing them protection from the Lake Ontario’s storm energy. However, the dunes are also fragile and are not tolerant to vehicular and foot traffic. Traffic across the dunes can kill plants, leaving areas devoid of vegetation. Those areas are susceptible to wind scouring, adjacent vegetation becoming undercut and resulting depressions which are known as dune blowouts.

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During this part of the tour, educators experienced Black Pond Wildlife Management Area (WMA), which is owned and managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (NYSDEC). This property boasts an Americans with Disability Act (ADA)-compliant trail and raised dune walkover that brought the educators to the shore of Lake Ontario after meandering through the 500+ acres (1).

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Along the way Mary Penney, Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Salmon River Stewardship and Habitat Program Coordinator for New York Sea Grant, discussed topics such as invasive species like purple loosestrife and European frog-bit [both pictured in (5); frog-bit floating on the water, loosestrife as a plant in the middle of the pond], dune blowouts and dune succession and plant communities (3) (4). One way the invasive loosestrife is being dealt with is through biological control. “It takes a long time to come up with a biological agent that will eat the invasive but won’t go after other species,” Penney cautions. Research began in 1985 and today the plant is managed well with a number of insects that feed on it. Several species each of leaf beetles and weevils use purple loosestrife as their natural food source and they can do significant damage to the plant.

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While on the beaches at Black Pond WMA, the teachers did not see a great deal of the pervasive green algae Cladophora washing ashore (9). NYSG’s Helen Domske explained that this is because Cladophora is an attached algae, meaning that it requires a substrate to cling to. This is a challenge on a sandy, less rocky beach. What was washing ashore in large quantities, though, were the shells of quagga and zebra mussels (7) (8) Domske taught the teachers how to tell the two apart by looking for the flattened portion of the zebra mussel shell that is lacking from the more oval-shaped quagga mussel shell.

Throughout their time at this WMA, the educators learned about the importance of practicing environmentally-responsible stewardship, especially when recreating in fragile and unique ecosystems - like staying out of areas with posted signs and behind the snow fencing (6) that protects the dunes. As part of this effort, Penney has been developing Eastern Lake Ontario Dune and Wetlands Traveling Trunk and a series of fact sheets, funded by New York State Department of State Division of Coastal Resources, that will be released this summer.

For more resources on this topic, check out NYSG’s NYSG’s Great Lakes Sand Dunes and Wetlands Web site.

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The Salmon River Fish Hatchery was built in 1980 and currently produces trout and salmon for stocking into Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. It is the largest of the 12 NYSDEC fish hatcheries and each year produces close to 2 million fingerlings (young fish 3-5 inches long) and close to 1 million yearlings (fish one year old or over) [see chart, (17), displayed by NYSG’s Mary Penney].

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The hatchery supplies fish for more than 100 public waters, including Lake Ontario. Annually, the hatchery stocks 3.5 million trout [including brown (14), rainbow (15) and lake (16)] and salmon [including Coho (11), Chinook (12) and Atlantic (13)] and nine million walleye fry.

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An educational program and facility tour was arranged for the educators. During this portion of the day, Fran Verdoliva, Salmon River Special Program Coordinator for NYSDEC provided an overview of the history of the Salmon River and Lake Ontario fisheries as well as a history and challenges of the Pacific (Chinook and Coho) salmon stocking program. Egg processing procedures were highlighted in a movie. Although this is not the busy time at the hatchery (Pacific salmon spawning season is around Columbus Day), we were lucky enough to see some adult brown trout in the fish ladder (18).

Pacific salmon are not native to the Great Lakes, but have become naturalized, successfully spawning in the Salmon River and other tributaries. According to NYSG-funded research five to 10 million Chinook salmon were naturally reproduced in the Salmon River in 2005. The finding comes from a NYSG-funded project carried out by SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry graduate student Dustin Everitt (for more, see related article in NYSG’s Coastlines, pdf). Research is underway to better understand the survival of hatchery and wild produced Chinook salmon.

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The final stop of the day was the majestic Salmon River Falls Unique Area (19) (20), owned and managed by NYSDEC. Prior to purchase from Niagara Mohawk in 1993, the Salmon River Falls Unique Area was closed to the public. Under current ownership the property has short distance trails that vary in difficulty such as the ADA-compliant Falls Trail, the strenuous Gorge Trail, and the moderate but often slippery Riverbed Trail.

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The gorge of the Salmon River Falls provides unique habitat for plant communities and wildlife. Bald eagles and osprey use the gorge walls for protection from severe weather.

The Salmon River Falls historically was the natural barrier for migrating Atlantic salmon. After the dams and reservoirs were constructed that changed. The flows experienced in the mainstream of the Salmon River bypass the Salmon River Falls and are pipelined from the upper reservoir to the lower reservoir (situated downstream). From headwaters in the Tug Hill to mouth in Port Ontario, the Salmon River is approximately 44 miles and experiences a drop of 1,500 feet in elevation.

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After dinner and the informative, exciting day exploring the Lake Ontario sand dunes and the Salmon River Hatchery, the group headed back to SUNY Oswego. There, the group shared 15 lessons from the Greatest of the Great Lakes, a COSEE Great Lakes curriculum CD product that was created a few years ago (For more information, check out NYSG’s related news item). Not only were the educators able to describe the classroom activity, some people suggested adaptations that made it a better activity in classrooms. Howard Walter, the COSEE Great Lakes evaluator, ended the evening by explaining about the challenges and different ecosystems. He was impressed by the thorough nature of the demonstrations.

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