Changes in the Ecology and Abundance of Smallmouth Bass in Lake Ontario: 1958-2014
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Understanding the reasons for long-term population change in a species requires an evaluation of ecological variables that may account for the observed dynamics. In this study, long-term changes in indices of Smallmouth Bass condition and population levels were examined for eastern Lake Ontario and the Bay of Quinte. Smallmouth Bass are an extremely important recreational fish species native to Lake Ontario. They have experienced numerous changes in their environment through direct human impacts, climate change, predation, and habitat sharing with non-native species. Smallmouth Bass have experienced an increase in body length and weight likely due to a diet shift from crayfish to predominantly Round Gobies which has allowed them to increase their growth rate. According to existing assessment data however, this increase in body size has not been associated with an increase in abundance. Long-term data from gill net sampling shows that Smallmouth Bass populations have been declining since the late 1980s with no indication of recovery. This could be due to a variety of factors, but it is most likely due to a change in the selectivity of gill nets because of the change in body size as well as a habitat shift away from gill net sampling sites. Adjusting for gill net selectivity has revealed that sub-adult bass abundance is currently greater than it was historically, and that very large bass are likely not being retained within the gill nets that are currently used. The use of a long-term data set in this study has led to a much better understanding of Smallmouth Bass abundance and ecology.