Recap of 2013 STR Winter Environmental Conference

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This past Saturday, I attended Save the River‘s annual Winter Environmental Conference at the Clayton Opera House. This is the first year I attended, since before I worked for TILT, I didn’t really travel in local environmental circles. It was great to hang out with the wonderful year-round and summer River Rats that come up specifically for this conference. And the food, provided by Bella’s, was delicious!* Overall the talks were extremely interesting, and spoken in laymen’s terms, so even a self-taught (and decidedly unscientific) environmentalist like me could understand! My thoughts on each lecture are below:

Save The River’s Catch and Release Program -Jeff Garnsey, Clayton Guides Association and Save The River Board Member & Clif Schneider, Retired DEC Biologist and Save The River Board Member.

In the past couple of decades, the local fishing guides have been instrumental with establishing a successful catch-and-release program for muskies. Before this program, muskies were fished whenever and to such an extent that the populations were drastically declining. Proposing a catch-and-release program was understandably unpopular at first, but with the guides banding together, and increased education about the importance of maintaining muskie populations, it soon became widely accepted. Now people know how to handle muskies properly – to hold the large fish horizontally, only use certain lures and get it back into the water as quickly as possible to avoid too much damage. During the fishing season, the local TI Sun is more than happy to run photos of people with their trophy-worthy muskies – in other words, you get publicity and local fame for letting your muskie go! And apparently you can still get a mounted, fiberglass fish made from just a photo and some measurements (who knew?).

Now the local guides have been wanting to do same with bass, which are also showing signs of decreased populations. This is not so much because of overfishing (although that is a factor) as the result of local River invasives like zebra mussels and round gobies, that have shifted the food chain diet to bottom sources. This has resulted in larger bass sizes (because they feed on the gobies), but  decreased populations (because the gobies feed on the bass’s eggs and fry).

My question with this: How do/will the guides deal with tourists who visit the 1000 Islands specifically to fish, and expect to leave with a full cooler of bass? I do not know how delicious a muskie is, but at this point, most people just fish them for the sport. A bass is more like “half-and-half” – people fish them for sport, but they also eat them (although there are tastier fish out there). Most serious fisherman are avid conservationists, but there are always some who fish to stock their freezer. I’m just curious how much the local economy may be affected if there’s a drop in fishing tourism…?

[Sidenote (aka shamelss work promotion): Jeff Garnsey has actually donated a full-day, guided fishing trip with shore dinner for 6 people to be auctioned off during TILT’s Winter Gathering fundraiser next month.]

Centrarchid Nest Predation on the St. Lawrence River Following Introduction of the Round Goby – Christina C. Killourhy, SUNY-ESF Master’s Candidate.

Ms. Killourhy’s question was – “Is there a link between native species’ (specifically rock bass, pumpkinseeds & smallmouth) nest habitats and goby predation?” After a summer full of research, she shared her extensive findings in the form of charts, graphs and some up-close videos showing goby armies gobbling down eggs. What I got from her data was that smallmouth bass were affected the most (see food chain comments above), and that more predation happened to the young during the egg and demersel fry stage. Once the fry were moving around in the water column, it seemed that the gobies couldn’t get at them as easily (gobies are bottom feeders).

The Changing Landscape of Invasive Species Prevention and Control – Jen Nalbone, Director of Navigation and Invasive Species, Great Lakes United.

At this point, we know that the zebra mussels and gobies were introduced to the St. Lawrence from the ballast water in the cargo ships that travel the channel. 2005 was “the year of the goby” – when invasive populations of this fish became unmistakable, and new regulations were passed the following year, thanks in part to the International Maritime Organization (IMO) and BWE (?). No new invasives due to ballast have been discovered since 2006, but the risk remains…not to mention, there is a lag-time between an invasive taking hold and enough scientific data being collected to prove the threat. Now, similar regulations are necessary for smaller, domestic ships, who don’t currently have to follow the same level of standards.

Another way that invasives are introduced is through the pet market. Currently, there are no prescreening requirements for imported non-native animal species. The question is how to update these policies without infringing on the economic values of this industry? Ms. Nalbone suggests giving the Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) the authority to screen an animal before it is brought over, with the importer/industry footing the bill. Members of our local government have already been instrumental in monitoring this threat, with more legislators becoming aware as more people bring it to their attention. If you’re interested in signing a pre-written petition, visit

But what about the invasives already in the Chicago River and the Great Lakes that are threatening the St. Lawrence? Emergency action solutions suggested by Ms. Nalbone, from least involved/expensive/effective to most, included an electric barrier, fishing and hydrological separation (restoring the natural divide). She also mentioned that the University of Georgia is developing a citizen monitoring app that can be used for early detection and adding to a distribution map. A great idea and something that other organizations already seem to be doing, to some extent.

Mercury in the Upper St. Lawrence River revealed in Common Terns Breeding along the Upper St. Lawrence River: A Comparison Between Winter and Summer Habitat – Christopher Baird, Queens University Master’s Candidate.

As most people know, there is a mercury risk from eating fish during pregnancy – in both humans and animals. I was surprised to learn that the largest emissions of mercury come from gold mining, followed by fossil fuels and other sources. And once it’s released into the ecosystem, it can travel globally, with the majority ending up in aquatic environments. Mercury also manages to stick around for a while since it’s such a stable element.

Mr. Baird has been monitoring the mercury levels in the Common Tern population along the St. Lawrence for a couple of years. Common terns are good indicator species because of their food web position, the fact that they are migratory birds but local foragers, and their feathers are a major excretion route for mercury. These feathers were what Mr. Baird used to test the mercury levels. Terns travel to Central America during the winter, so he tested the feathers when they first arrived (winter-grown feathers) and later on in the season after they had been foraging for a few months (summer-grown). Mercury levels were found to be almost twice as high in the summer-grown feathers. Also, adult Terns had a higher concentrations than the chicks, because, luckily, the chicks essentially excrete contamination as they grow and molt.

Mr. Baird’s extensive data showed that the Terns that fed in shallow/littoral habitats have lower mercury levels than those that foraged in deeper waters. The feeding location was even more important than colony location. He also noted that the highest levels appeared in Ogdensburg (which is upstream from a previously noted “area of concern”), but downstream from lower level readings in Clayton. Obviously there is a tributary or specific location in the Ogdensburg area that is contributing to these higher levels! More research is needed on that, but overall, the Common Tern population has been growing, especially as the mercury levels in local fish are declining.

[Sidenote: Every April, TILT partners with Save the River to install a Tern nesting grid on our Eagle Wing Shoals and Tidd Island Preserves. Contact us if you would like to volunteer!]

The St. Lawrence River Fish Habitat Conservation Strategy: Evaluation and Development of Novel Restoration Approaches – John M. Farrell, Associate Professor in Aquatic and Fisheries Science at the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry  and Director of the Thousand Islands Biological Station (TIBS)

Dr. John Farrell started with the familiar story of how building the St. Lawrence Seaway lowered water fluctuations on the River. As a result, cattails (both native and non-native species) have grown in so thick that other species have been dramatically affected by the change/loss of habitat. Northern Pike in particular are an indicator species affected by the cattail invasion, as are muskies (although both have also been affected by predation and disease).

The crew from the Thousand Islands Biological Station (TIBS) have been busy the past few summers performing restoration habitat management to reopen channels in the cattails, allowing fish to travel inland and spawn. When they first began, TIBS discovered that the seedbeds of the native plants were still viable and sprouted after the cattails were cleared. After 3 years, the cattail have not come back, while the diverse native fish have returned in droves!

Fluctuation in water levels is good for encouraging biodiversity (aka the flood pulse concept). As much complaining as there was about the recent low water levels, this fluctuation is actually good in the short-term…it only becomes a problem when a drought lasts for too long, with no natural resources replenishing the system. However, the TIBS crew has discovered that restoration success is constrained by water level management.

During the presentation, Dr. Farrell showed aerial photos of TILT’s Crooked Creek Preserve, dating from 1948, 1972 and 1994, showing the significant habitat loss due to invasive cattails. He also mentioned the possibility of running a community “stream walk” to identify problems along the water, and discuss the different ways locals can get involved.

In fact, Dr. Farrell, and Mr. Baird both gave TILT a nice shout-out in their presentations, vocally and in their visuals. It’s important to recognize your partners, and we appreciated being mentioned!

[Sidenote: TILT is partnering with TIBS again for our hugely popular KidsTrek: “Ichthyologist (Fish Scientist) for a Day.”]

Photographing the Round Goby – Yasmeen Smalley, Underwater Photographer

Ms. Smalley is a student studying, specifically, underwater photography. She’s been working on a project photographing the round gobies around one of the many wreck dive sites that pepper the 1000 Islands. Her main goals were to show story of the goby in a visual way (as opposed to scientific stats), and to visually convey the words used to describe them – “aggressive,” “alien” and  “invasive.”

She discovered that the unique geography and ecology of the St. Lawrence provided her with plenty of challenges as a photographer and as a diver, but the photos she showed were fantastic. Check out her work on her website.

Making Connections:  Taking the Lessons onto the River and Putting the River into the Lessons – Heather White & Kathy Morris, educators with the Save The River In The Schools Program.

Save the River works with local teachers to incorporate River education in the curriculum through their “In the Schools,” and “On the Water” program. The opportunity for collaboration with STR (as well as the various partners that help during their “On the Water” programs – the Minna Anthony Common Nature Center, NY State Zoo and TILT) allows learning in and out if the classroom – it’s all related!

Mary White teaches science to kids in Watertown. She lamented that many have never taken a walk in the wood or a swim in the River. These are real city kids, and she loves nothing more than that moment during teaching when the reactions change from “ooh…” to “aha!”

New common core standards require kids to read more non-fiction starting at a young age, which is perfect for science teachers. Schools no longer have funding for field trips, but the grants that Save the River uses for these programs pays to transport the kids as well as to educate them. On these trips, kids get to think like scientists, in both high-tech and rudimentary ways. Kids today aren’t interested in the same things as kids 10 yrs ago – today its less nature, more tech, so the teachers try to incorporate a mix of both in their lessons!

[Sidenote: During the summer, TILT runs an extremely popular series of KidsTreks (with a new TILTKids Camp coming soon!) that give kids (and their parents) opportunities to get out in the open. Because of this exposure to conservation today, they will carry that respect for the outdoors with them throughout their lives and truly be the stewards of tomorrow.]

*The hardest part about living in such a seasonal community is that my favorite restaurants close for the winter. But apparently they are still available for catering, since I was treated to Bella’s at the conference and Clipper Inn at the TI Arts Center opening the night before. I can’t wait for spring!

Photo from Save the River

3 responses to “Recap of 2013 STR Winter Environmental Conference

  1. Sounds like an amazing event! I was sad to see it was on the same day as Northern River’s Imbolc celebration because I remember seeing something about this last year and really wanting to go. I hope to get to one of these conferences in the future. You know how important the environment is to me, and keeping up on the issues that impact my little corner of the world is huge. Thank you so much for sharing your notes and reflections!

    And yes! I can’t wait for my favorite river restaurants to open in the spring! Mmmm! I miss Bella’s so much!

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