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Brook Trout: Protect and Restore

Nov 17, 2014 10:09AM ● Published by Erica Shames

by Kathy Reshetiloff

The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is a small, brilliantly colored freshwater fish native to clear, cold streams and rivers in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

The state fish of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, the brook trout is the only native trout in the Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Brook trout are recognized by a dark green back covered with lighter worm-shaped markings. These markings, resembling the pattern created when the sun shines through rippled water, help to camouflage brook trout from predators such as larger fish and herons — and even fly fishers. Bluish sides are sprinkled with yellow spots and red spots surrounded by blue halos. The brook trout’s fins are starkly edged in white, which again is unique among trout.

These fish thrive in clear, silt-free, well-shaded freshwater streams with numerous pools and a substrate made of mixed gravel, cobble and sand. Brook trout are not tolerant of water temperatures higher than 75 degrees Fahrenheit, so they are rarely found in developed areas.

These opportunistic feeders are not picky eaters and will eat whatever they can find: aquatic insects, like mayflies, caddisflies and stone-flies; land insects that fall into the water, like ants and beetles; small crayfish; and even small fish and minnows, but only when they are easy to catch.

Brook trout spawn in autumn, mainly in October to November. A female uses her tail to create a shallow nest or “redd,” often near the lower end of the pools where the gravel is swept clean of silt, and fresh, oxygenated water is abundant. There, she deposits eggs, which the male then fertilizes. During spawning, the lower flanks of males become brilliant orange and older males may develop a slightly hooked lower jaw.

The female covers the fertilized eggs with gravel. The eggs incubate through the winter months and hatch in the early spring. Brook trout mature in two to three years and live to be about 6 years old. Most grow no more than 9–10 inches long. A 12-inch brook trout is rare and considered a real trophy.

Despite their small size, brook trout have always been a prized and especially popular catch for fly fishermen.

Historically noted for their recreational value, brook trout are very significant biologically. Because they require pristine, stable habitat with high water-quality conditions, brook trout are viewed as indicators of the biological integrity of streams. As water quality in headwater streams has declined, so have brook trout populations.

Urbanization affects brook trout through the loss of streamside vegetation, loss of stream shading, increased sedimentation, reduced flow, increased high-flow events, changes in the physical makeup of stream beds and increased impervious surface.

Agriculture’s impacts on brook trout populations are similar to those of urbanization — increased water temperature, increased sedimentation, changes in hydrology and loss of streamside vegetation. Additionally, livestock can pollute water and damage stream banks, increasing the erosion of sediments into waterways.

Mining activities impact brook trout populations through acid mine drainage, hydrological changes and physical habitat degradation.

Nonnative fish, such as brown trout, compete with native brook trout for food and habitat. Brook trout populations can become isolated by physical barriers like dams, decreasing genetic diversity and the survival of the species.

Recognizing the uniqueness of eastern brook trout and its decline in this region, The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture formed in 2004.

This alliance is a partnership between state and federal agencies, regional and local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, academia, scientific societies and private citizens working toward protecting, restoring and enhancing brook trout populations and their habitats across their native range.

Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture works on a variety of activities including: identifying and prioritizing brook trout restoration and conservation projects; restoring brook trout habitat using bank stabilization, in-stream structures and streamside plantings; removing dams and other stream blockages; and promoting livestock fencing.

Today, the partnership is made up of more than 370 agencies and organizations, including citizen groups, from Maine to Georgia.

In the last 10 years, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture has worked to remove 78 dams and barriers, opening more than 200 miles of rivers and restoring more than 200 miles and nearly 500 acres of rivers and streams for wild brook trout. These efforts not only help brook trout but create economic benefits to local communities by providing buffers against flooding, increasing fishing and boating opportunities and increasing property values through the improvement of the local environment.

For information about protecting and restoring brook trout, go to: The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture website, http://easternbrooktrout.org.

Kathy Reshetiloff works for the USFWS in Annapolis. Distributed by Bay Journal News Service.

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