View from the Water

Fishing at dusk on Chautauqua Lake

On September 25, 2019, The Post-Journal of Jamestown published a front-page article declaring that there were no adverse effects from herbicide applications in Chautauqua Lake last spring.  Citing a report produced by Princeton Hydro, the third party monitoring company hired by the Chautauqua Lake & Watershed Management Alliance, adverse impacts of the herbicide application were said to be minimal.  The report acknowledged there was some “drift,” but that it was anticipated and did not affect drinking supplies in the north basin of the lake.  And although plant biomass decreased in targeted weeds Eurasian watermilfoil and curly-leaf pondweed, according to the report, “four of the more common native species all increased from pre-to post-treatment conditions.”

George Borrello, Chautauqua County Executive, concluded that “it appears that the herbicide treatments did their job in the places they were supposed to.”  The newspaper noted that the Memorandum of Understanding and consensus strategy includes harvesting, near shore cleanup, watershed activities to reduce phosphorus and herbicide use.  Mr. Borrello cautioned that into next year, “[I think] we’re going to have a few pieces trying to jockey for position and work against the unity that we have right now around Chautauqua Lake.”

Many people and organizations do, in fact, want unity but cannot support the widespread use of herbicides as they are currently being applied. These people include scientists, fishermen, business owners, vacationers, long-time users of the lake, environmentalists, pet owners and parents.  Their concerns and observations are worth noting.

A local marina that keeps an informal tally of fishing comments reports losing business in boat rentals and bait sales earlier this season.  Businesses like these are reluctant to speak up because they fear business might get worse if the word gets out about water restrictions and harmful algal blooms.

A teacher recently took her students to get a plankton sample in Ashville Bay and it was teeming with life.  The sample contained some cyanobacteria (responsible for the harmful algal blooms) but also a lot of healthy organisms.  A plankton sample at Celoron Park revealed an obvious algal bloom.  The top three cyanobacteria were present in the sample in large numbers, but perhaps more concerning, there was little else—a marked decline in beneficial organisms. 

Though these observations are due to a single sampling at each site and are anecdotal, they are still observations worth noting due to the significant differences seen in the samples. It should be a priority for those managing the lake to have regular sampling and proper scientific methods for comparison of treated areas versus non-treated areas.  Plankton are at the base of the food chain for all lake life, and harmful cyanobacteria toxins are a serious health risk.

Captain Larry D. Jones, a charter fishing guide and leading member of several fishing associations, recently reported that because of the slow fishing action in Chautauqua’s south basin, he knows of over twenty fishermen from Pennsylvania, Ohio, West Virginia and New Jersey who decided not to book a cottage this year for a fishing vacation. 

“How many other people made that same choice?” he asked.  “Chemical treatments are not only destroying our lake, they are destroying tourism!”

“It is a fact that the mid-May herbicide treatments damaged or totally destroyed vast areas of fish habitat—well beyond approved areas of application in the south basin of the lake,” said Edward Crum, M.D.  Dr. Crum has owned a lakefront cottage on the lake for 38 years and is a lifelong, avid muskie fisherman.  

“Many who fish Chautauqua Lake observed that fishing was shut down in the application areas and beyond for most of the season,” Dr. Crum continued.  “Concerns raised about drift effects and destruction of all vegetation based upon observations from the 2018 herbicide use were brushed aside and met with proclamations of ‘no drift’ and ‘herbicides kill only invasive weeds’ from vocal herbicide zealots prior to the 2019 treatments.

“Although the herbicide targeted curly-leaf pondweed as a non-native species, it has been integrated into the Chautauqua Lake plant community for decades and is widely recognized as an important component of early season habitat for spawning and protection of young-of-year game and forage fish.”

“I am genuinely fearful that another herbicide attack on the south basin fishery in 2020 will destroy our fishery for many, many years to come,” said J. Regis Thompson, Executive Director, Chautauqua Fishing Alliance.  “There are virtually no weeds at all for roughly a 1.4-mile by 2.5-mile swath in the south basin, from the Lakewood Packard Estate area across to Sheldon Hall as far south as Celoron and the new hotel, regardless of depth. We surveyed this entire vast area in late September, for the fourth time, and found nothing but barren bottom. The herbicides drifted and caused complete eradication of all native and invasive weeds in almost 10 times the targeted area.  This looks like the Michigan lakes fishery fiasco all over again, only this time in western New York.”

“For a fisherman, it is gut wrenching to see what was done to the south basin of the lake this year,” said Dr. Crum.  “The rushed application of tons of liquid chemicals into our big, wind-swept lake just before the opening day of fishing season, targeting one of the most important components of habitat for healthy fisheries, resulted in the destruction of vast areas of all offshore vegetation. To see this being described as a ‘big success’ by some feels like rubbing salt into a wound for people like me.  Fishermen wish to share the lake, not be driven from it.  The apparent plans to do the same thing in 2020 are on the way to driving us from it, since its consequences are incompatible with Chautauqua Lake continuing as a world class fishery.”

“In over 70 years of my family’s lakefront residency, we have never before seen such a severe lack of fishery management controls or destruction of submerged offshore habitat supporting our lake’s great fishery,” said Mr. Thompson.  “I’m so disgusted that I am considering just selling my fishing boat and playing golf if next year’s herbicides bring what the current ’herbicide momentum’ appears to forecast.

And that would be a sad outcome, indeed.

Chautauqua Lake Truths and Fishery Mismanagement

Chautauqua Lake bottom stripped of non-native and native aquatic weeds after herbicide application. Photo by J. Regis Thompson.

The problem with politicians and some state and local bureaucrats is they take credit for things they did not do and avoid accountability for the messes they make.  Chautauqua County is no exception.

Some local officials or their paid experts proclaim success. The real truth is Chautauqua Lake has had three consecutive years of widespread herbicide impact that has destroyed aquatic plants far beyond New York State Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) permitted targets. With this vast overkill and resulting unintended consequences that are growing exponentially each year, our world class fishery has been seriously jeopardized.

In the south basin of Chautauqua Lake, herbicide applications began in mid-May, the earliest in memory. This early application irresponsibly exposed thousands of spawning and young-of-year game and forage fish to associated toxic shock and caused the widespread destruction of both native and non-native weeds that served as critical game fish habitat. There is nothing left in these very large offshore lake regions except barren lake bottom or grass. 

With the end of summer 2019 already here, the fact is these unintended consequences are serious lake management failures where, once again, no one is held accountable or even accepts responsibility.  Princeton Hydro, contracted to evaluate the herbicide application, and Solitude, the organization responsible for applying the herbicides, may find solace in the fact that dissolved oxygen did not drop to a significant fish kill level. But their experts simply fail to grasp the critical importance of the widespread absence of offshore, submerged fish habitat (in deeper water) and the associated toxic shock to fish that still shut down much south basin fishing activity for the entire 2019 summer season. How long can the lake continue to tolerate these continuing mistakes?

The Chautauqua Fishing Alliance (CFA) sonar and GPS research surveys estimate that because of wind drift, 2,100 acres of offshore aquatic vegetation in the south basin were unselectively destroyed this year alone. This is more than five times the 388 near-shore acres actually targeted under DEC permits. 

According to Racine-Johnson Associates, a lake consulting group from Cornell that has been working on our lake for a number of years, confining the unintended impact of liquid herbicides on a big, windy lake the size of either Chautauqua Lake basin is nearly an impossible task. 

Top lake fisheries require critical tenets of their own to retain that reputation. CFA’s national fishery research network in nine northern states reveals that most top fisheries balance harvesting with herbicide use in three very specific ways:

1. All navigation channels are cut solely with mechanical harvesters to ensure confinement to permitted specifications.

2. Only granular herbicides are used to minimize the negative impact of wind drift. Liquids are rarely or never used on big, windy lake basins.

3. Early season weed control of curly leaf pondweed is managed solely by harvesting, with herbicide applications following later in June after prime fish spawning and key post-spawn periods have safely passed.

These three practices are widespread in top North American fisheries in northern states. We wonder how long it will take local municipalities and our Chautauqua Lake & Watershed Management Alliance officials to implement these three important conservation management lessons.

Without adhering to these methodologies, some of the tenets in the Chautauqua County Memorandum of Agreement (MOA) are worthless. The County has already misinterpreted a major MOA tenet related to using herbicides safely in a top-quality fishery.

J. Regis Thompson is Executive Director, Chautauqua Fishing Alliance. He is the third generation in his family to live in a Chautauqua Lakefront cottage.

(Editor’s Note: Lake users should know how to identify and report Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs). NY DEC recommends you treat any algal bloom as an HAB, and “it is best to avoid swimming, boating, otherwise recreating in, or drinking water with a bloom.”)