Lake Erie emerald shiners likely will be worth more than their weight in golden shiners again this year – and fisheries biologists lake-wide do not have a good handle as to why a dearth of them exists either.
Indeed, biologists who intently study Lake Erie’s fisheries are not even sure of the scope of the emerald shiner population decline anymore than they do the “why.”
“I’ll be up front about it; I know very little about emerald shiner biology,” said Travis Hartman, head of the Ohio Division of Wildlife’s Sandusky Fisheries Research Station.
It would appear that no one else does, either; beyond a general acknowledgement that emerald shiner stocks are down lake-wide. This means that Lake Erie’s yellow perch anglers – especially those in Lake Erie’s Central Basin – are compelled to look to commercially raised golden shiners, a commodity that many fishers claim is an inferior substitute for emerald shiners.
“A New York perch fisherman will tell you the same thing,” said also Donald Einhouse, Lake Erie fisheries manager for the New York State Environmental Conservation agency.
Perhaps adding fuel to the fire is New York State’s so-called “transportation corridor.” This rule allows emerald shiners taken north of Interstate 90 (the New York Turnpike) to be used but only within that region. And while an outright prohibition on interstate exportation does not exist, Einhouse said that to do so would require meeting the requirements of any transportation corridor established by both Pennsylvania and Ohio.
And that insistence would almost surely set up a red-tape conundrum for a bait dealer who works on a slim margin of profit as it is.
Generally not well known, too, is that at one time many of the emerald shiners sold in bait stores along Ohio’s share of the Lake Erie shoreline originated from New York’s Upper Niagara River and Buffalo Harbor.
In further explanation as to the situation, New York’s transportation corridor application came about when the fish virus VHS(viral hemorrhagic septicemia) was first detected in Lake Erie more than 10 years ago. The concern centered on how transporting Lake Erie baitfish posed a potential threat to fish stocks beyond the basin. The federal government lifted its edict around 2007; this, following the implementation of state-regulated transportation corridors.
However, the downturn in the status of Lake Erie’s emerald shiner population is only aggravating the exportation-transportation situation.
“Unfortunately we have to talk in generalities because we don’t index emerald shiners,” Hartman said. “(Emerald shiners) sort of fall through the cracks.”
Hartman did say that during some fish survey work does suggest that emerald shiner populations are not what they were a few years ago. Among the studies are sampling the stomachs of Lake Erie predator fish. Among them are yellow perch, walleye and smallmouth bass.
Results of these efforts point to these named predatory fish species eating fewer emerald shiners. Instead, Hartman says, Lake Erie’s upper tier predators are feeding on something other emerald shiners.
“They are adjusting and adapting,” Hartman said.
Consequently, Hartman says he’s not particularly worried; not when a walleye or a yellow perch has an abundance of other prey available to it for sustenance.
“I’d be more concerned if we saw a problem with the predator base but we are not noticing it at a level where emerald shiners are on the way out,” Hartman said. “It’s good that Lake Erie has other prey for fish like walleye and perch to feed on.”
Besides, Hartman said, even trying to get a handle on Lake Erie’s emerald shiners would be no small task. The species prefers open water and typically suspend in the water column.
“That makes emerald shiners tough to assess,” Hartman said.
Tough, yes, agrees Einhouse, who explained that his state’s take is the same as that of Ohio’s; expanding how the emerald shiner population’s downturn has extended for at least “two years.”
“So far this year it has not been difficult for people to collect emerald shiners, but that can change very quickly,” Einhouse said as well.
Yet it’s also been a considerable challenge for Pennsylvania bait stores to stock the popular yellow perch bait, says Darl Black, a Pennsylvania outdoors writer who writes an exhaustive weekly fishing report for that state’s northwest region. Featured in Black’s report are extensive outtakes gleaned from Erie-area bait dealers and anglers.
“Barely (an emerald shiner) is showing up in shallow waters in Pennsylvania or in Presque Isle Bay; bait shops have none,” Black said.
What is needed then is for some favorable environmental factor to kick in and reboot Lake Erie’s emerald shiner stocks – whatever those factors may be, Hartman says as well.
Besides, it’s not like the emerald shiner population has crashed; not enough that some licensed bait dealers cannot find the minnows at all, Hartman said.
“Clearly there are people who are finding them,” Hartman said. “(And) all it would take is one good hatch for the emerald shiner population to rebound.”
Until then, Lake Erie yellow perch anglers will need to buy golden shiners or net their own emeralds now and preserve them for use later in the fishing season.
Just remember, Hartman says, that Ohio law stipulates that if you keep 500 or more live emerald shiners in some fashion you must have an annual $40bait dealer’s license. That license is likewise required of charter captains if they separately charge their clients for the baitfish, Hartman said.- Jeffrey L. Frischkorn