Groups working to ensure young fish in reservoir have places to hide

When it was young, the Allegheny Reservoir had plenty of fish habitat.

Trees, roads, human structures – all kinds of things were underwater.

After 50 years, however, much of the cover, especially along the shores, has disappeared – decayed or buried under silt and sediment.

That leaves fewer places for young fish to hide and find food and fewer safe places for some spawning fish to deposit eggs.

Various groups – from the Kinzua Fish and Wildlife Association, the Allegheny National Forest, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Sheffield Township, and the City of Warren – pitch in to pitch natural Christmas trees into the reservoir at strategic locations.

Kinzua Fish and Wildlife has already collected about 560 trees – about 250 from Warren – this year, according to secretary/treasurer Robert Boyer.

Another group is also working on the problem.

The Fish and Wildlife Department of the Seneca Nation of Indians has a stake in the fish population on the reservoir. Fishing is not just recreation for some members of the Nation.

“Walleye are pretty significant tribally to the Seneca Nation,” Fisheries Manager Shane Titus said. “That goes back to our tribal heritage and our culture.”

“We rely on the walleye run,” Titus said. “They’re a source of sustenance, even to this day.”

Titus is in charge of the walleye hatchery near the northern reaches of the reservoir.

“That’s the purpose of this hatchery – to protect our own heritage,” he said.

The effort combines introducing large numbers of fish, some larger fish, and creating habitat.

The Nation’s fishing laws limit the number of walleye, as well as the number of large walleye that can be taken. The creel limit is four walleye at least 15 inches in length including no more than one of 21 inches or more. “Those are the breeding size walleyes,” Titus said.

There are lots of young walleye in the reservoir. In addition to the fish born of eggs laid in the reservoir, according to Titus, the hatchery’s efforts in 2012 resulted in about one million fry – newly-hatched fish – and about 1,000 fingerlings up to six inches being released.

The naturally occurring fish are not as big as they should be, according to Titus.

“With the fingerlings and young-of-years, they’re in these areas with lack of habitat, they’re not growing as large as they should,” Titus said. “They’re not quite adequately fed and sheltered.”

“We’re having 2.5- and 3-inch fingerlings,” he said. That’s about half of what he would like to see for a healthy walleye population.

Small young fish lead to small adult fish and that’s only part of the problem.

“Every species of fish – walleye, crappie, perch, northern pike, smallmouth bass, muskellunge, white bass, largemouth bass – is using these fish,” Titus said.

If there are only undersized fish around, adult fish have to find and eat more of them. “Your predatory fish are expending that much more energy to eat a substantial meal,” he said.

With larger young fish come larger adult fish and better-fed predators. “The ones that do get eaten, they’ll eat the one and that’s a substantial meal for them,” Titus said.

Better and more abundant habitat will allow the young fish to grow more quickly.

Like those from other groups, Seneca officials have found Christmas trees to be an available, low-cost source of habitat. “We have a very aggressive fish habitat program,” Titus said. That program is in its fourth year.

However, there are limitations. “We have a limited amount of Christmas trees,” Titus said.

And, the trees are only underwater part of the year. Because they are placed in locations that are shallow during the summer, the changing from summer pool to lower winter pool reservoir levels leaves the trees high and dry. “Being exposed speeds up the erosion process,” Titus said. “They should be underwater. They’d last longer.”

“We are looking into buying some artificial habitat,” he said.

The Nation is working with a company called Fishiding and owner David Ewald.

“He makes a variety of habitat,” Titus said. “It’s 100 percent environmentally friendly… excess vinyl siding.

“That product will last us a lifetime,” he said. “You put it in and it’ll be there regardless of exposure to the elements.”

Certified scuba divers among the Nation’s members will check on habitat and take photographs, allowing officials to make decisions about where the habitat should be located.

According to a Kinzua Fish and Wildlife newsletter provided by Boyer, the Nation approached KFWA for assistance in securing a grant to pay for Fishiding habitat. “Of course,” the newsletter said. “We would be glad to become a partner. Anything for habitat.”

Asked if the Nation had any concerns about the carp population on the reservoir interfering with walleye or any plans to act to reduce that population, Titus said he does not have enough concerns to take the issue to the Nation’s council.

The number of carp is high, but the problem is not so serious that it requires immediate action.

Carp uproot plants and stir up sediment from the reservoir floor, especially near the shores. Sediment in the water decreases the amount of sunlight that reaches the plants that remain and makes it more difficult for fish that rely on sight to find food.