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Little Fish Gets Big Helping Hand

Jan 10, 2011 10:47PM ● By Anonymous

It is difficult to find a healthy population of native brook trout in the Mid-Atlantic. But the little fish were recently extended a big helping hand in a report designed to restore a water body in which they will never swim – the Chesapeake Bay.

Brook trout are the region’s only native trout, and according to a recent study they have vanished from nearly half of the Mid-Atlantic watersheds that once supported them.
Now, a strategy to restore the Chesapeake calls for upgrading brook trout habitat in 58 local watersheds from “reduced” to “healthy.” The deadline for this goal is 2025. Brook trout advocates hope that momentum and funds will follow.

“If brook trout had a vote, they would be excited about the Chesapeake Bay executive order (they order that prompted the restoration strategy),” said Mark Hudy, aquatic ecologist with the USDA Forest Service.

Efforts to restore the bay have long included goals for restoring crabs, oysters, and migratory fish that move between freshwater rivers and the saltier Chesapeake Bay. The new brook trout goals are the first to address an upland fish species that will never swim in the waters of the Bay.

Leopold Miranda-Castro, supervisor of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Chesapeake Bay Field Office, said “Brook trout have been kind of forgotten in the last two decades.” The new goal makes the trout an official measure of the progress of restoring the headwater streams that feed the region’s big rivers that in turn flow to the bay.

“If we do some really good habitat restoration for brook trout, it will be a big help for water quality in local streams and eventually in the bay itself,” Miranda-Castro said.

Brook trout are an indicator of healthy streams, because they survive only in the coldest, cleanest water. But streams with clean, cold water are increasingly hard to find.

While fishermen everywhere can testify to the decline of brook trout, a study by the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a multi-state restoration partnership, has painted the picture in grim detail.

They study found healthy populations of brook trout survive in the Chesapeake region only in the extreme headwaters of mountain streams that are cooled and buffered by forests, often on public land.

Brook trout have fallen victim to many of the same land use practices that pollute the Bay and its rivers with nitrogen, phosphorus, and dirt.

The loss of forests, especially along streams, has warmed the water, increased erosion, and delivered increasing amounts of pollutants into the stream through stormwater runoff. The absence of forest buffers also means less fallen leaves and twigs, which shelter fish and support the microscopic aquatic life they feed on.

On farms throughout the region, cattle have free access to streams. Cattle drop manure into the water and damage streambanks as they move, creating wide shallow channels too warm to support the “brookies.”

But the driving force behind habitat loss varies by location.

Logging practices can be a problem in mountainous areas, not just from clear-cutting but also from roads and streams crossings.

Acid mine drainage has ruined many Pennsylvania streams and drilling for gas in the Marcellus shale formation is a growing concern. In West Virginia, acid rain enters the streams. Stormwater runoff from developed areas has taken a heavy toll in Maryland.
In some places, competition with rainbow trout and brown trout—both stocked and wild populations—has pushed out the brook trout or limited its range.

For some streams, the damage is permanent.

“You can’t take land around a mall and make it support a brook trout stream,” Hudy said. “And some small populations are like dead men walking. They don’t have long-term viability because a drought, flood, fire, an oil spoil could wipe them out. In the past they could move downstream, but now there is nowhere to go.”

For another set of streams, the battle continues and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture is leading the charge.

The Joint Venture formed in 2005 to protect and restore brook trout in the eastern United States. The group now includes 17 state, federal, and nonprofit partners. The partners conduct individual restoration projects but also join forces on projects, often with funding from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s National Fish Habitat Action Plan.
The Joint Venture’s created a detailed catalogue of local brook trout populations. Each state in the partnership has also written a restoration strategy, published on the Joint Venture web site.

The federal Bay strategy drew on this foundation to set its new goal and continues to work with the Joint Venture to identify the 58 watersheds that will be targeted for a habitat upgrade.

The recipe for restoration depends on the specific problems of each site. Any number of factors might be tackled, as long as they add up to a healthy stream.

On Smith Creek, in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, Joint Venture partners are restoring four miles of impaired waters to connect with an isolated population of brook trout further upstream. They have restored 65 acres of streamside buffers and installed fences to keep 250 head of cattle from roaming the creek.

Some sites require an in-stream makeover. Land use practices have left the streams wide, shallow, and possibly dammed—lacking the rhythm of pools, riffles, and runs that provide brook trout with a variety of options for breeding, feeding, and shelter. On a branch of Bobs Creek in Bedford County, Pennsylvania, small dams and other barriers are being removed and 23 new in-stream features are being constructed to recreate more natural flow.

Acid mine drainage also impacts many Pennsylvania and Maryland streams. Aaron Run, a tributary of the Savage River in western Maryland, needed a limestone doser to neutralize the water. But it also needed twenty acres of riparian plantings, a wetland area, and re-engineered streambanks.

“It was a little bit of everything,” said Alan Heft of the Maryland Department of Natural Resources.

When the monitoring period is complete, brook trout will be introduced. “We’ll relocate native stock out of the Savage River itself and place adults right in the stream, the same genetic strain of fish that should have been in there the whole time,” Heft said.

Climate change may soon affect them all. Rising air te

mperatures lead to warmer waters and may even encourage parasites that damage streamside forest buffers.

Scott Carney of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is concerned. “One of the things we’re seeing right now that may be directly or indirectly related to climate change is a consistent trend in waters warming up,” Carney said.

Research is currently underway to explore brook trout resistance to climate change and its impact on restoration strategies.

“There’s a lot we can do in terms of habitat manipulation that will increase the population and the longevity of their presence in a watershed. But, when you factor in climate change issues, it’s hard to say where we’ll be in the long run,” Carney said.

The stocking of rainbow and brown trout, which compete with brook trout for habitat, is controversial in some parts of the Mid-Atlantic. Some fishermen support the stocking of these non-native species, while others say their presence will reduce or eliminate the brook trout.

But in general, brook trout can look to fishermen as their strongest advocates.

Stephen Harry is a fishing guide in south central Pennsylvania. Harry leads fly fishermen into the high mountain streams where brook trout still ply the waters. These trout are hungry, and fishermen like the aggressive way they take the bait.

“That’s what’s so much fun about the native brookies,” Harry said. “They put a bend on the rod that’s as big as the smile on your face.”

According to Harry, fishermen know that the presence of brook trout means clean water. To him, there is no better indicator of high water quality in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay.

“They are one of our native fish and so beautiful,” Harry said. “But no fly fisher I know keeps any. We handle them very carefully and put them back very carefully. They are too precious a species to keep.”