Anne Carrier ¹ ², Philippe Brodeur³, Daniel Hatin⁴ and Louis Bernatchez¹
¹Département de biologie, Institut de Biologie Intégrative et des Systèmes (IBIS), Université Laval, G1V 0A6, Québec, Canada
²Département de Techniques du milieu naturel, Centre d’études collégiales à Chibougamau, Cégep de Saint-Félicien, Chibougamau, G8P 2E9, Canada
³Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, Direction de la gestion de la faune de la Mauricie et du Centre-du-Québec, 100, rue Laviolette, bureau 207, Trois-Rivières, G9A 5S9, Canada
⁴Ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs, Direction de la gestion de la faune de l’Estrie-Montréal- Montérégie-Laval, 201, Place Charles-LeMoyne, Longueuil, Québec, J4K 2T5, Canada
Muskellunge is one of the most mythical and impressive fish species. Over the past two centuries, biologists and Muskellunge anglers have documented many fascinating aspects of its biology. For example, it’s impressive size (Bernatchez and Giroux 2012), its unusual migration abilities (Kerr and Jones 2017) and even its surprising reproductive behavior (Crossman 1990, Jennings et al. 2011). The history regarding Muskellunge is fascinating, as evidenced by the origin of its name and the history of its management, which reveal the particular importance of Muskellunge in Québec.
This article is a non-exhaustive historical overview of some of the most important aspects of Muskellunge management in Québec. It includes some historical references regarding the nomenclature and taxonomy of Muskellunge, its original and contemporary spatial distribution and the stocking history. This article reports the work done as part of a Master’s thesis, which first aimed at gathering available historical information that would support the interpretation of genetic data on Muskellunge in Québec waters (see article of Rougemont et al. in this issue).
Taxonomy and Québec folklore
As early as the colonization time of New France, documents from the Société Provancher mentions that the first viceroy of France, Sieur Jean-François La Rocque de Roberval, used the basin of the Maskinongé River as his fishing territory. At the time, Muskellunge was a well-known species as evidenced by the multiple presumed Amerindian roots of its name, which meant big pike, ugly pike or spotted pike (Crossman 1986, MacCaughey 1917). Gradually, these appellations have derived to become « long mask » or « elongated mask » in Québec French. Today, the two generally accepted names are « maskinongé » in Canada and « Muskellunge » in the United States, but there are between 40 and 94 common names in French only (see Mellen 1917, Chambers 1923, Weed 1927 and Crossman 1986 for an exhaustive inventory of the different names and their origin). As mentioned by Crossman (1986), probably no other fish has, in a single language, as many forms or spelling of its common name. According to Weed (1927), the number of its common names is a fairly reliable index of the extent to which a fish attracts attention. This partly explains this diverse nomenclature, but as Mongeau (1976) points out, this taxonomic confusion also certainly comes from its great resemblance to the Northern pike (Esox lucius) and the fact that it has been recognized quite lately as a different species from his cousin.
Commercial fishing and natural distribution in the 19th century
Since the nomenclature of the species was highly variable until the beginning of the 20th century, it is very difficult to interpret observations regarding the Muskellunge distribution until the 1900s. In the 19th century, Muskellunge was highly prised by native and non-native anglers and, because of the quality of its flesh and its imposing size, it contributed to a significant commercial fishery in Québec. Although today the opinions are mixed about the taste of the Muskellunge flesh, the naturalist Constantine Rafinesque mentioned in 1818 that « it is one of the best fish (…) its flesh is very delicate and divides easily like salmon, in large white patches like snow » (MacCaughey 1917). According to historical records of the Canadian fisheries management authorities (Crossman 1986), nearly 2.9 million pounds, representing approximately 192 535 Muskellunge, were harvested by the commercial fishery in Québec from 1868 to 1936. Interestingly, commercial catches of Muskellunge in the waters of the Montréal area accounted for 90 % of the landings of this species throughout the province (Fry et al. 1942). Muskellunge commercial fishing ceased in 1936.
The historical texts suggest that native Muskellunge was found only in southern Québec, even if its northern and southern distribution limits are only very slightly defined. Its distribution was likely limited to the waters of the St. Lawrence River watershed and some of its tributaries from the Ottawa River to Québec City (Small 1883, Dymond 1939, Vézina 1977). According to information available at the end of the 19th century, native Muskellunge was found from the southern border of the province (including the Champlain Lake and the Richelieu River watersheds) to Northwest of Outaouais, Laurentides, Lanaudière, and Mauricie regions (Dymond 1939). Specifically, Dymond (1939), Small (1883), Halkett (1906 and 1907), and Montpetit (1897) report that Muskellunge was present (1) in the Rideau River north of Merrickville (Outaouais, Québec), (2) in the Ottawa River south of Rapides des Joachim (MRC de Pontiac, Outaouais, Québec), south of the Petawawa River and up to Travers Lake (Algonquin Provincial Park, Ontario), and (3) in several lakes connected to the Gatineau and du Lièvre Rivers, including Gilmour, Donaldson, and Plumbago Lakes (MRC Collines-de-l’Outaouais, Outaouais, Québec). In addition, some isolated populations were discovered in 1968 after the dismantling of private fishing clubs in the Mauricie region, specifically in the des Envies River watershed, which is a tributary of the Batiscan River, where the Traverse Lake (Potvin 1973, Pageau et al. 1978) analyzed in the study of Rougemont et al. (see article in this issue) is located. Finally, according to the interpretation of Fry et al. (1942), quoted by Robitaille and Cotton (1992), the most important native population in Québec would have been in Lake St-Louis, a fluvial lake of the St. Lawrence River.
Active management period
Muskellunge has been one of the most stocked fish species in Québec (Dumont 1991). Prior to 1950, few Muskellunge stocking in Québec were recorded in the literature (MacCaughey 1917, Dymond 1939, Small 1883, Halkett 1906 and 1907). At the end of the first half of the 20th century, a significant decline of Muskellunge populations in the waters of the St. Lawrence River and of the Montréal Archipelago, associated with overfishing and habitat loss, raised worries and questions. Therefore, the wildlife management authorities undertook a major restoration project which included the construction of the very first Muskellunge hatchery facility in Lachine (borough of Montréal city, Québec) (Pictures 1 to 3), as well as the development of a local expertise on esocids breeding (Vezina 1977). In 1950, these actions led to the beginning of stocking, which were adapted to contemporary knowledge in 1985. Muskellunge stocking continued until 1997. During the same period, the species was also introduced, with or without success, in more than 80 Québec water bodies in order to create new opportunities and enhance existing Muskellunge populations (Vézina 1977, Dumont 1991, Vincent and Legendre 1974, Brodeur et al. 2013, de la Fontaine, Y. unpublished). In a few rare cases, Muskellunge introduction has been used in an attempt to control competing species in brook trout lakes. Introducing a top-predator into the food chain obviously had an impact on the fish communities.
Muskellunge farming began in Québec at the Lachine hatchery in 1950. Due to water supply problems, breeding was transferred to the Baldwin Mills hatchery in 1964 (now known as the Baldwin-Coaticook provincial hatchery) (Dumont 1991). Following unsuccessful attempts to breed Muskellunge from several local lakes such as Lake des Deux-Montagnes (Montréal area) and the Gilmour, Donaldson, and Plumbago Lakes (Outaouais) (MPC 1961, Vezina 1977, Crossman and Goodchild 1978), embrocated eggs were imported from the Bemus Point hatchery (New York, USA) and, to a lesser extent, from the Deer Lake hatchery (Ontario, Canada) to start production (Kerr 2001, Dufour and Paulhus 1977, Christopher Wilson and Christopher Legard, personal communication). Muskellunge from both hatcheries originated respectively from the Chautauqua Lake (New York, USA) and from Stony Lake, Buckhorn Lake, and from the Crowe River, these three last water bodies being part of the Kawartha Lakes system in Ontario. According to the information we gathered, it appears that all the lakes used by these hatcheries have also been stocked with an unknown Muskellunge source to support their respective fishery (Christopher Wilson and Christopher Legard, personal communication). Both of these hatcheries, as well as the one of Lachine, are no longer in operation.
From 1965 to 1986, Joseph Lake (Centre-du-Québec, Québec) was used as a broodstock source to supply the Baldwin Mills hatchery (Dumont 1991). Subsequently, from 1986 to 1997, Lake Tremblant (Laurentides, Québec) was used as the source population. Muskellunge was originally introduced in both lakes from the American or Ontarian sources (see Figure 1 – simplified stocking history in Québec). The results of the genetic study confirmed that the American source was the most likely for both lakes.
Stocking, carried out over several decades in the Montréal area, has been effective in improving the stock status and maintaining the Muskellunge sport fishery. In fact, an analysis of Muskellunge recruitment measured from 1962 to 1977 revealed that 55 % of the annual abundance of young Muskellunge could be explained by the number of yearly stocked individuals and the abundance of young Muskellunge stocked the previous year (cannibalism
and/or competition effects) (Dumont 1991). In 1998, the improvement of the Muskellunge population structure, distributed over a long time period, and the presence of natural recruitment justified the end of stocking (Cloutier 1987, Dumont 1991). Since then, no Muskellunge stocking has been done in Québec.
Integrating collaborative science to Muskellunge management
In parallel to the management actions undertaken by the Québec government, a general reflection on fishing practices and a growing interest in the conservation of a high quality fishery focusing on trophy-size specimens emerged, leading to the creation of Muskies Canada (Wachelka 2008a,b,c) and to the beginning of a long collaboration between muskies anglers and the Québec wildlife management authorities. Muskellunge is not vulnerable to capture by the scientific fishing gears used to monitor fish communities in the St. Lawrence River. Monitoring the sport harvest of Muskellunge through angling surveys is therefore an excellent alternative to contribute to its management and to allow evaluation of the effectiveness of the management measures.
To evaluate the status of Muskellunge stocks, a study was conducted in the 1990s in collaboration with the Montréal chapter of Muskies Canada. From 1994 to 1997, five anglers tagged and released 808 Muskellunge, mainly in the Montréal area. The results showed that a few hours of fishing were enough to catch a Muskellunge, whereas in the 1970s, an experienced angler needed approximately 100 hours of fishing to catch a single specimen. After three years of survey, 88 tagged fish were recaptured by anglers, which corresponded to a recapture rate of 11 %, considered relatively low and indicative of a total Muskellunge abundance of several thousands of specimens (Pierre Dumont, personal communication) The gradual increase in the extent of the Muskellunge size structure suggested by the fishing surveys and the presence of a natural production of young Muskellunge justified the cessation of stocking in 1998 (Dumont 1991).
To update the data on the Muskellunge fishery in the St. Lawrence River (from Lake Saint-François to Lake Saint-Pierre) and in Lake des Deux-Montagnes, a second survey was conducted from 2010 to 2013, more than a decade after stocking ended. This second study was conducted with the invaluable collaboration of three professional anglers recognized in Québec, Mr. Marc Thorpe, Mr. Mike Lazarus and Mr. Michael Phillips. A total of 2 569 Muskellunge were captured, of which 2 162 were tagged by three volunteer anglers. Of these tagged fish, 108 were recaptured. The order of magnitude of recapture rates was low in all studied sectors (3.7 % to 4.8 %). Compared to the study carried out in the Montréal area from 1994 to 1997, the recapture rate reported from 2010 to 2013 was twice lower (4.8 % compared to 11 %). Since the recapture rate is generally inversely proportional to the total abundance of a population, this result suggests that the abundance of Muskellunge in the Montréal area has increased since the stocking ended, at least for medium to high size fish, targeted by anglers.
According to archived data from 1918 to 1927, 19 % of Muskellunge caught in Lake Saint-Louis exceeded the legal minimum size of 44 inches (Figure 2). In 1973, this proportion was of 16 % and then increased to almost 50 % in the late 1990s and to 54 % during the 2010-2013 period. This improvement over several decades can be explained by stocking, combined with the enforcement of a minimum legal size of 38 inches in 1986, which has been increased to 44 inches in 1998 (Figure 2). Because of the presence of large specimens, the waters of the St. Lawrence River and of Lake des Deux-Montagnes are now identified as sites of great interest for Muskellunge anglers. In the section of the St. Lawrence River between Montréal and Lake Saint-Pierre, the low abundance of young specimens smaller than 35 inches in the Muskellunge sport harvest suggests a lower recruitment, compared to Lake Saint-Louis and Lake des Deux-Montagnes (Figure 3). This result justified the realization of a study conducted by the ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs (MFFP) and its numerous partners that aims to identify the essential habitats of the species by using telemetry
(see the article of Brodeur et al. in this issue).
The most recent fishery survey has generated some preliminary knowledge about Muskellunge migration. Thus, between 2010 and 2013, the majority of marked individuals (95 %) recaptured by the sport fishery within six months after tagging or one to two years after, were in the same body of water where they had been tagged. The distances measured between specimens capture and recapture were generally less than a few kilometers, both on a one year scale and between years (72.7 % and 58.1 % of recaptures within 5 km from the tagging location, respectively). This result suggests that, although Muskellunge can travel long distances, particularly during the breeding season, a large proportion of individuals return to specific areas corresponding generally to large vegetation beds favorable to feeding. This result demonstrates the importance of preserving and restoring the submerged aquatic vegetation beds of the St. Lawrence River. However, large-scale movements between the various sectors of the river have been observed between Lake Saint-Pierre and the Montréal-Sorel section, with distances of up to 58 km. This result was recently corroborated by the preliminary results of the telemetry study, which shows that a certain proportion of the Muskellunge tagged at Lake Saint-Pierre migrate upstream during the feeding season (see article by Brodeur et al. in this issue). These observations of large scale movements also corroborate the connectivity existing throughout the St. Lawrence River system revealed by genetic analyses.
To maintain the trophy status of the species, which can maintain and improve the quality of the Muskellunge fishery, a regular review of the stock status and management is required. Since 2010, a study aiming at gathering new knowledge on several aspects of Muskellunge biology has been conducted by the MFFP and its numerous partners. This vast study will contribute to Muskellunge management in Québec. To date, this initiative has led to a retrospective of historical management, reported in this article, to a genetic analysis of Muskellunge populations (see article by Rougemont et al. in this issue), and to a study aiming to identify essential Muskellunge habitats between Montréal and Lake Saint-Pierre. Some anglers report a recent decline in the quality of the Muskellunge fishery in some inland water bodies of Québec, which remains to be measured. Muskellunge studies based on angling surveys have thus been underway for some years in the Maskinongé Lake and the Ottawa River (see Deschesnes in this issue).
We thank the following people for their valuable collaboration. We would like to acknowledge the involvement of the Muskellunge anglers who participated to the 2010-2013 angling survey: Marc Thorpe, Mike Lazarus, and Michael Phillips. Special thanks to Peter Levick (Muskies Canada), Chris Wilson (Aquatic Research and Monitoring Section, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry), and John Farrell (Department of Environmental and Forest Biology, State University of New York) who shared with us many information on Muskellunge management. Thanks to Christopher Legard (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) and Christopher Wilson (Fish Culture Section, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry) for sharing the Chautauqua Lake and Deer Lake hatcheries history. Thanks to Steven Kerr (retired biologist, Fisheries Section, Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources) for his invaluable advice and for sharing his knowledge on the history of Muskellunge management in Québec. Thanks to Shawn Good (Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department) and Jeffrey J. Loukmas (New York State Department of Environmental Conservation) for sharing management and stocking history of Champlain Lake. We also thank the Fédération québécoise des chasseurs et des pêcheurs, Ressources Aquatiques Québec and Muskies Inc. for their financial support. Funding was also provided by the ministère des Forêts, de la Faune et des Parcs du Québec and by the Canada Research Chair in Genomics and Aquatic Resources Conservation.
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