Native brook trout are in hot water

August 27, 2006|By CANDUS THOMSON

My first brook trout arrived on a frosty late-spring morning in mountain water so cold it made my fingers tingle before going completely numb.

No bigger than my hand, the brookie was a work of art to rival New Hampshire's Chocorua Lake, its home just before I enticed it to swallow my fly and to which I would return it moments later.

Its olive skin peppered with blue-ringed red dots and a rakish orange belly is a vivid image that has stayed with me for more than 25 years. If I had a lick of artistic ability, I could draw that fish from memory.

Since arriving here 18 years ago, my encounters with brookies have been fewer and farther between. Some of that has to do with the other fish that occupy my time: white perch, croaker and, of course, striped bass. (Let's not even mention menhaden, OK?)

But even when I've carved out the time, it's been hard to do a meet-and-greet with Maryland's only native trout.

The reason, I'm learning, is because brookies - like striped bass and (there I go again) menhaden - are finding it harder and harder to survive in our world.

Brookies need clean, clear, cold streams to survive. Maryland has fewer and fewer streams that fit the profile.

A recently released study of Eastern brook trout by Trout Unlimited and other conservation groups says Maryland's brookies have disappeared or their numbers have been greatly diminished in 85 percent of their historical range.

Even worse, the state ranks ahead of only Georgia when it comes to percentage of lost brook trout habitat. In the 145 watersheds that used to have brook trout, just three have strong populations and 47 have "reduced or greatly reduced" numbers.

Savage River in Garrett County has the largest population of wild brook trout, but other pockets remain in the nearby Youghiogheny River, Catoctin Creek in Frederick County and Gunpowder River in Baltimore County.

Indeed, the study's good news/bad news message is that while "a surprising number of brook trout streams survive near Baltimore ... maintaining these populations will be an extraordinary challenge."

But that's just a pinhole of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy picture.

"Something has to be done," says Dave Press, a retired professor from Frostburg State and a TU member. "If the public becomes aware that a heritage fish is threatened and cares, there seems to be some money available through the government to help."

Of course, Maryland isn't alone in its abuse of a native fish. Wild streams have vanished from North Carolina to Maine. Even pristine, fish-rich streams and lakes in upstate New York have been degraded by development, rising water temperatures and the introduction of aggressive non-native fish.

But we have a governor who gets on TV in other states, begging folks to visit and sample our outdoors adventures. We are, after all, the Land of Pleasant Living.

Except if you have fins and breathe water.

But things may be changing.

The Department of Natural Resources is proposing stricter brook trout regulations for Western Maryland streams. The hearing on this end of the state will be at 7 p.m. on Sept. 18 at DNR headquarters in Annapolis.

"But very little of what needs to be done can be done by DNR," says Jim Gracie, head of the Maryland Brook Trout Alliance. "It's going to be non-government groups that make things happen as far as land use, habitat and water quality."

The Alliance started in January as part of the National Fish Habitat Initiative, which encourages public-private partnerships to educate the public, raise money for habitat restoration and change laws to protect the environment.

In Maryland, the Alliance has formed groups to focus on the Gunpowder, Savage and Youghiogheny rivers and three Potomac River tributaries: Antietam and Catoctin creeks and Monocacy River.

Gracie says the Alliance's first project will be to get money for the gear to map the temperature and flow of the waterways.

"High water temperature was cited in the study as one of the top threats to brook trout, so we want to identify those areas that are because of a lack of shade. A lot of that land is private property, so we want to encourage tree planting, an easy fix," he says.

According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, more than one-third of Maryland's 8,800 miles of freshwater streams have little or no vegetation buffers to filter runoff, which helps explain why nearly half of streams are rated of poor biological quality.

Other fixes might not be so simple. The Gunpowder, for example, is plenty cold because the Baltimore Public Works folks regulate the release of water from Prettyboy Reservoir to maintain trout-happy temperatures. But "it has a problem with exotics, which is a fancy word for brown trout," Gracie says.

Conventional wisdom says the aggressive browns make life impossible for the smaller brookies, so mixing the two in the same stream is a problem.

But, Gracie says, on the Savage River below the dam, a self-sustaining population of each coexists, with a mix of one-third brook trout, two-thirds brown trout.

"We need to look at that and find out why it occurs, but that might be a model that to me is encouraging for the Gunpowder," he says.

The Alliance will meet Oct. 6. For more information, call Gracie at 410-303-3829.

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