Masters Work

Diving into the Olcott Reef, Southwestern Lake Ontario

During the summer of 2014, I embarked on an adventure with my MS thesis advisor, Dr. Jim Haynes, and our fellow boat and dive crew, to sample a manmade reef.

When I first learned of the Olcott Reef, I was completely taken by the fact that Lake Ontario had a reef! I thought reefs were the iconic features of salt water, not freshwater. But I would soon learn that reefs are common throughout fresh and salt water environments. When I was in the nascent stages of my MS research and trying to gather as much information about the history of Olcott Reef, my advisor, Dr. Haynes, steered me in the direction of Rod Hedley.

“Nothing ever comes easy.” These wise words came from a spirited fisherman sitting at his office desk overlooking Eighteen Mile Creek in Olcott. I came to Olcott for the first time in June 2014, just out of my first year as a Masters student at SUNY Brockport. My MS thesis was focused on the invertebrate ecology of the Olcott Reef, and my major advisor, Dr. Jim Haynes, steered me in the direction of Rod Hedley, who, back in 1980, breathed the idea of a man-made reef in Lake Ontario into existence. Rod Hedley was that wise fisherman I met with in 2014. I was interested in the invertebrates living at the reef- crayfish, mussels, snails, mayflies-but in order for my project to be placed into a larger context, I needed to learn the history of the reef. Rod Hedley provided me that history, and several anecdotes to go along with it.

I first met Rod in his office, which overlooked Eighteen Mile Creek in Olcott, NY. I remember his office was a sunny room in his Hedley Boat Company building, riddled with filing cabinets, piles of newspapers, reports, undoubtedly these were all time capsules of important aspects of fisheries issues and the Olcott Reef. He invited me to sit at his desk, and Rod started talking about the Olcott Reef:

 He had conceived the idea when Lakeshore Contractors out of Michigan had been doing hole drillings at the Somerset power plant in the late 1970s, which was just down the road, so to speak, from Olcott. During this time, Lake Ontario’s lake trout populations were struggling-their numbers dwindling because of invasive sea lamprey predation, overfishing, and habitat degradation. Lake trout are apex predators in Lake Ontario, which means they play a key role in keeping lower trophic level fish numbers stable. Rod Hedley was concerned about the future of lake trout. They needed help from us-maybe in the form of additional habitat structures for them to spawn on, and for other prey fish and invertebrates to colonize.

In Rod’s eyes, the large rock materials resulting from the Somerset power plant drillings were more valuable to help lake trout than as waste. Rod thought, why not rent a barge to haul those rocks out to Lake Ontario and build a reef to attract lake trout and hopefully increase their numbers?

Rod talked to the right people, and by the spring of 1982, nearly 500 cubic yards of rock material was dumped into Lake Ontario, right off Hopkins Creek and one mile west of the Olcott Beach Harbor entrance. The Olcott Reef, or Niagara County Reef, is about 25 feet below the surface of Lake Ontario-on good days when the water is clear, you can see it from a boat.

The Olcott Reef was completed in 1982, and over the course of 30+ years, this structure has witnessed dramatic changes in the fish community. While the initial purpose of this reef was to enhance the local lake trout population, as the added structure from concrete blocks would provide more surface area for lake trout eggs to hatch, it was not that simple. Throughout the 1990s, zebra mussels arrived in Lake Ontario, and quickly colonized the reef and surrounding habitat. At first, the arrival of zebra mussels resulted in increased abundances of many invertebrates-snails, worms, and some aquatic insects. These abundant critters were good, as they are food for smaller fish that lake trout eat. But too much of a good thing…not so good. More and more zebra mussels colonized, and then their cousin species, the quagga mussel, arrived at the reef-these mussels smothered the surface of the reef and drove out the invertebrates that lake trout prey fish like to eat. And in the early 2000s, the round goby arrived, a ravenous invasive fish that gobbles up zebra and quagga mussels and any other invertebrates it can snatch up. Because it is aggressive and eats native and invasive invertebrates, the round goby likely drove out the native fish species even more-bad news for the lake trout. 

When I had dove with Dr. Haynes to collect my thesis samples in 2014, the reef was dominated by a carpet of invasive round gobies, which are an aggressive fish that are displacing native sculpins throughout much of the Great Lakes region.Throughout the summer and during my visits to Olcott, Rod always kept tabs on what I and the Brockport boat crew were finding on the reef.

He provided the necessary background of the reef, even told me stories of how the fisheries board was reluctant to the reef’s construction. And he seemed very excited that I was studying the reef, and he inspired me to keep pursuing the things we can’t see from the water’s surface. “Just because you can’t see it, it doesn’t mean it is not providing a service.” 

I frequently keep in contact with my MS advisor, Dr. James Haynes, who had originally suggested I take on the Olcott Reef project for my Masters thesis. After I left Brockport in the spring of 2016, Dr. Haynes and some graduate students at Brockport set gill nets above the Olcott Reef to assess the fish communities. When I had dove with Dr. Haynes to collect my thesis samples in 2014, the reef was dominated by a carpet of invasive round gobies, which are an aggressive fish that are displacing native sculpins throughout many of the Great Lakes. What Dr. Haynes found in 2016 was looking promising for lake trout. I remember later that summer of 2016, getting a call from Rod when I was out in Montana doing field work. He asked how I was doing and if I had heard any updates from Dr. Haynes about the reef. It was always so grounding to speak with Rod. I talked to him briefly in the winter of 2017, and I sent him a copy of my paper from the Olcott Reef study, but never heard back. I found out, in December 2017, that my friend had passed away in May 2017.

That quote again: “Nothing ever comes easy.” I wanted to take time to reflect on my experience at Olcott Reef because it wasn’t just the science-collecting the critters, identifying the critters, running the statistics-it was the intellectual and historical rigor that Rod provided and which inspires me as I enter my 4th year in the PhD program at Notre Dame. I still have copies of newspaper articles and old journal papers he gave me. He even let me take pictures of old blueprints and photos of the reef. Although I now study the Great Salt Lake, I feel as though everything I learned from Rod and Olcott Reef is applicable. My interactions with Rod made me more comfortable with myself-to ask questions, to be curious, to not be afraid to keep in touch. I think I owe Rod a debt of gratitude for his unwavering belief in that what I was studying really matters. Even now, I study things most of us do not see from the surface, but they are there, and even though Rod has moved on to that better place, I know I can still hear hints of his wisdom.