Climate change threatens Maine’s brook trout

We’ve heard and read a lot about the alarming increase in green crabs in coastal waters, and the devastating impact the crabs have had on mussels and clams. Lobsters may be next. The city of Brunswick even appropriated $100,000 to work with local clammers to try to save their clam flats.

Warming coastal water seems to be the problem, caused by global warming. Crabs are thriving in the warmer water.

We have heard far less about the impact of climate change on inland fisheries, but perhaps we started to change that yesterday, when I participated in the roll-out of a new report from the National Wildfire Federation titled, “Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World.”

The Natural Resources Council of Maine organized the event, a telephone news conference, moderated by NRCM’s Dylan Voorhees. Joining me on the panel were Eric Orff, a National Wildlife Federation wildlife biologist, and Jason McKenzie, owner of New Hampshire’s Suds n’ Soda store that sells sporting goods and caters to sportsmen.

Among reporters participating in the event was the John Holyoke of the Bangor Daily News. You can read his news story about this on the BDN website.

Ironically, just four hours before the telephone press conference, Harry Vanderweide and I taped a Wildfire TV show with Pat Sirois, coordinator of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, about his work with private landowners on culverts and road crossings that are installed so as to allow brook trout to move upstream to their spawning grounds.

Tens of thousands of culverts across the state that are too small and/or improperly installed block fish passage today. And we’ve been entirely unsuccessful at the legislature in enacting new laws and rules to require better culverts, mostly due to the strong opposition of Maine Municipal Association, based on the higher cost of doing culverts correctly.

I have to credit Pat Sirois, the state’s large private landowners, and Maine Audubon, for stepping up and creating a partnership called the Fisheries Improvement Network to work on fish passage issues in Maine. Sirois directs the FIN and has become an expert on culverts and road crossings. He has created, in partnership with Maine Audubon, an excellent training session on these issues.

Bad culverts are not the only threat to Maine’s native brook trout. The legal and illegal introduction of competing species has been a terrible epidemic of destruction, inadequate protection through rules and management have caused an alarming decline in native brook trout – especially in southern Maine, and  acid rain and deteriorating water quality have taken a toll.

But as we struggle to fix these problems and save our remaining brook trout, we look to the skies for what may be the final blow to this magnificent fish. Brook trout must have cold clean water. They gather in spring holes in our lakes in the summer, when they can, or travel up brooks and streams or to rivers to escape warmer lake water when they can.

Many studies have documented rising temperatures in major rivers and lakes across the country. A 2012 die off of lake trout in our own Lake Auburn is used as an example in the new report, caused by a combination of warmer water and a deluge that washed a lot of nutrients into the lake, causing an algae bloom that robbed the trout of oxygen.

Yes, this is a complicated problem, and includes weather events that leave brooks and streams swollen and overflowing and later, reduced to a hot trickle. I hadn’t thought about this but the report noted that sudden changes in the channel of a brook or stream can be a problem too. On my favorite remote brook in Baxter Park this year, I noticed the channel, in just one mile of the brook, had relocated in four places due to a change in water flow.

Vorhees says the biggest thing we can all do now to address this problem is to advocate for the passage, at the federal level, of new controls on power plants. Maine’s Congressional delegation is very accessible. I encourage you to encourage them in this direction, today.

And then you ought to join and support organizations that recognize these issues and are active on initiatives to solve these problems. Coming up in January there will be a major push at the legislature to offer better protective measures for wild brook trout in waters that haven’t been stocked in at least 25 years.

We have already provided this protection for brookies in the 300 waters that have never been stocked, thanks to legislative support six years ago for a bill proposed by the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine, during my tenure there, and sponsored by then-Senator Chandler Woodcock.

It would be really neat to move that protection to the wild brook trout waters while Chandler is DIF&W Commissioner.

Considering all of the challenges of protecting our brook trout, officially designated this state’s Heritage Fish, and given the fact Maine has 97 percent of the nation’s remaining native brook trout, we must do all we can for this fish. Shame on us if we lose them.

George Smith

About George Smith

George stepped down at the end of 2010 after 18 years as the executive director of the Sportsman’s Alliance of Maine to write full time. He writes a weekly editorial page column in the Kennebec Journal and Waterville Morning Sentinel, a weekly travel column in those same newspapers (with his wife Linda), monthly columns in The Maine Sportsman magazine, two outdoor news blogs (one on his website, georgesmithmaine.com, and one on the website of the Bangor Daily News), and special columns for many publications and newsletters. George also hosts, with Harry Vanderweide, a TV talk show called Wildfire, now in its 13th year and focused on hunting, fishing, environmental, and conservation issues. The show is owned and produced by Maine Audubon and seen on its website as well as on the Time Warner cable TV station throughout the state.