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.”)

One thought on “Chautauqua Lake Truths and Fishery Mismanagement”

  1. Great Article!
    The fishery in the south basin of Chautauqua Lake is definitely in jeopardy if the widespread use of herbicides continues. If the Chautauqua Lake fishery collapses so will the local economy dependent on tourism.
    Mike Sperry

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