Trends in muskellunge population and fishery characteristics in Buffalo Harbor (Lake Erie) and the Niagara River

We review the history of muskellunge management and describe population and fishery responses to management actions. Stocking of muskellunge in the Niagara River occurred sporadically from 1941 to 1974 when angler harvest was common. Since the late 1970s, managers have enacted increasingly restrictive minimum length limits and anglers adopted a catch-and-release ethic. Despite these efforts, angler catches declined sharply after 1991 in Buffalo Harbor and 1984 in the upper Niagara River; catch rates rebounded after 2006 in the Niagara River, but remain near all-time lows in Buffalo Harbor. In addition, mean catch rates of young-of-the-year (YOY) in fall electrofishing surveys declined from 3.3/h in 1992–1993 to 1.7/h in 2006–2009 in Buffalo Harbor and 11.0/h in 1992–1994 to 5.4/h in 2006–2009 in the Niagara River. Several ecosystem changes occurred that likely contributed to reductions in muskellunge populations, but comprehensive monitoring programs were not in place to quantify these effects. Recent seining surveys show YOY muskellunge production during 2007–2011 was highly variable among index sites (within years) and years, but catch per unit effort was 5.3 times higher at Niagara River sites than Buffalo Harbor sites; catch per unit effort of all fishes was 9.5 times higher in the upper Niagara River than Buffalo Harbor. Both areas are in need of habitat restoration, but habitats in Buffalo Harbor appear especially poor for nearshore fishes. Uncertainty about which factors led to declines in angler catches of muskellunge and YOY production demonstrates the need for a comprehensive monitoring program and formal muskellunge management plan.