Is Fifteen Percent Enough?

Natural lake shorelines provide nesting habitat for a much more diverse fish community than shorelines that are mowed to the edge. Photo by Craig Seger

Only 15%. That’s approximately the amount of natural shoreline currently remaining on Chautauqua Lake. What does that mean for the lake’s ecosystem and its fish and wildlife communities? What does it mean for us, the people who live and recreate on the lake and depend on lake communities for tax revenues to run our public services and health care costs?

As quoted in The Shore Primer: A Cottager’s Guide to a Healthy Waterfront, “The waterfront is the lake’s lungs, doormat, cafeteria, and daycare, a living retaining wall for the shore. It’s a sophisticated ecosystem that serves as the glue holding a shoreline together, through roots and foliage. It’s also a zone where contaminants from land can be filtered, where fish can lay their eggs, and where small critters hang out.”

We know from research at many lakes, including Chautauqua Lake, that converting wooded natural shorelands from natural wild emergent and overhanging vegetation to a shoreline of lawns and concrete or steel-armored banks results in a direct loss of fish and wildlife habitat and reduced diversity and abundance of the insects, worms, crustaceans, and other food that feed panfish, gamefish, amphibians, waterfowl, and mammal species. We know that several species of panfish and gamefish lose nesting habitat. We know that the twigs, sticks, branches, and trees which are found lying on the bottom of the lake adjacent to natural shorelines provide essential habitats for reproduction, shelter, and feeding of many fish and other animals. Research from Minnesota indicates removing a tree from lake waters can have a negative effect on fish populations for over one hundred years! Research by Robert Johnson, formerly of the Cornell University Research Ponds & Racine Johnson, shows that insects which eat and help control the abundance of Eurasian water milfoil plants rely on natural shoreline vegetation and shallow water emergent vegetation to not only lay their eggs but also for shelter against predators during the short, non-aquatic part of their life cycles. Research from Wisconsin has shown that shoreline development reduces populations of woodland nesting birds such as warblers, thrushes, and vireos, while common suburban birds such as chickadees, blue jays, grackles, and goldfinches increase in numbers.

So what have we wrought on Chautauqua Lake? Our famed muskellunge, which needs natural shorelines with native vegetation and well-oxygenated bottom conditions for its eggs to survive, now has an adult population that is at least 75% hatchery-reared. What about habitats for mink, beaver, muskrat, turtles, water snakes, frogs, waterfowl, and other water-related birds?

Because of the essential nature of natural shorelands to the ecological health and water quality of lakes, conserving the lake’s most important shoreline habitats has been a primary objective and activity of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy since it began. Much habitat has been saved, but much has also been lost. The Conservancy has facilitated the conservation of over 2 miles of lake and outlet shoreline, including more than ½-mile of wetland shoreline (80 acres) along the Outlet-Chadakoin River, 700 feet of shoreline wetlands (7 acres) at the mouth of Prendergast Creek and Whitney Point, and 30 acres of the Goose Creek wetland. We have also partnered with NYSDEC to conserve 0.6 miles of lake shoreline at Cheney Farm, 1,180 feet at Stow Farm, and 12 acres and 400 feet of natural shoreline at Whitney Bay. In addition, according to our 2022 lake buffer survey, about 200 private landowners are helping in these efforts by growing native plant buffers on their shorelines around the lake’s perimeter. That means more habitat for more abundant fish and wildlife!

With only about 1.4 miles of the lake’s 42-mile shoreline remaining in a natural condition, we have a lot more work to do and more shoreline to conserve and restore. Since the majority of the lake’s shoreline is privately owned, the Conservancy continues to engage and educate lakeshore homeowners about the benefits of native plant lakeshore buffers and how they can reduce shoreline erosion and improve habitat on their own properties. For assistance, please contact our Conservationist Carol Markham at carol@chautauquawatershed.org.

The mission of the Chautauqua Watershed Conservancy is to preserve and enhance the quality, scenic beauty, and ecological health of the Chautauqua region’s lands and waters for our community. To support our conservation programs, schedule a presentation, or inquire about a free LakeScapes yard consultation, please call 716-664-2166 or email us at info@chautauquawatershed.org.


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