Fishes of Onondaga Lake

Onondaga Lake is in a state of recovery following the closure of a chlor-alkali facility in 1986 and repeated improvements to the metropolitan sewage treatment plant. Dr. Neil H. Ringler, Vice Provost for Research at SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry began studying the lake in 1986 with the aid of undergraduate and graduate students. During the late 1980’s and early 1990’s they found a littoral zone devoid of macrophytes, a warm water fish community dominated by planktivorous fish, and low abundance and diversity of benthic macroinvertebrates. The fish community continued to be dominated by planktivorous fish (gizzard shad/white perch/alewife) until 2006 and more recently the littoral community has been dominated by warm-water centrarchid (bass/sunfish) species. Fish captured by gill nets have also shifted from planktivorous fish in the 1980’s – early 1990’s to walleye and channel catfish. Recent catches have also included cold and cool water species such as brown trout and lake sturgeon. Since 2005 aquatic macrophyte abundance, distribution, and diversity have improved, increasing habitat for fish and macroinvertebrates. Despite improvements in habitat and water quality benthic macroinvertebrate diversity remains low, most likely attributed to poor sediment quality.

Project Title: Long term monitoring of the biological recovery of Onondaga Lake after a century of industrial pollution

Preliminary sampling of epiphytic macroinvertebrates has shown that macroinvertebrates are recolonizing the lake but they are associated more closely with aquatic macrophytes. Even with these improvements there remain areas of the lake in which there is sparse vegetation and low fish reproduction. Many of these locations have high contamination levels and are scheduled to be dredged and capped in 2012. Research for 2011 includes: biomonitoring of littoral and pelagic fish, aquatic macrophyte, and epiphytic macroinvertebrate communities, monitoring movement of walleye, smallmouth bass, and brown trout using sonic telemetry, netting and tagging of lake sturgeon, population estimation of bass and sunfish using mark recapture methods with an electroshocking boat, and an analysis of how land use effects trophic dynamics of macroinvertebrates in Onondaga Lake tributaries. This long term study of an urban lake’s recovery will have world wide applications.

Location: Syracuse New York State, USA

Timeline: 1986 – present

Field participants:
Current ESF graduate students:
Lucas Kirby (PhD candidate)
Stephanie Johnson (PhD candidate)
Kurt Karboski (M.S. student)

Principal investigator:Neil H. Ringler Vice Provost for Research, SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry

Honeywell Co.

Dr. Neil H. Ringler (
Lucas Kirby (
Stephanie Johnson (