A monthly column in the Monadnock Ledger-Transcript.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

The Speckled Beauty: Hope in a Stream of Challenges

Wild Eastern brook trout is our canary in the coal mine.

As birds are flying south and deer are in the rut, another species is moving in the quest to fulfill its life cycle.

The Eastern brook trout is swimming its way upstream, into little brooks that wind through the woods, to the places of its own origin, where it will spawn and start the next generation.

If all goes well, the wild Eastern brook trout will spawn successfully, leaving another generation to renew the cycle.

From the brook trout’s perspective, it’s a challenging journey for sure. There are the predators, like anglers, great blue herons and otters. There are competitors: non-natives, like small-mouth and large-mouth bass. There is the warm temperatures and low oxygen. There’s the low water, no water and silt. And there are the obstacles: impenetrable dams and pitched culverts that block their journey.

Before I say another word about those challenges, let’s be clear about this fish: the wild Eastern brook trout, one of nature’s most beautiful creations.

Small Fish, Big Beauty

It’s a master of camouflage with its dark green-chained back, adorned with dazzling circles of blue and red dots.  And during the fall spawning season, the male radiates with a bright orange underbelly.

The Eastern brook trout is the official state fish for New Hampshire and a handful of other states. Unlike the rainbow and brown trout, brookies are native. They’ve endured here since the retreat of the Ice Age.

All three of those trout species are raised in hatcheries and stocked in New Hampshire’s waters for anglers. Many of the wild, naturally reproducing brook trout in our streams have a genetic heritage that includes some degree of stocked, hatchery-reared trout.

And while many streams in our region have lost wild brook trout, there are still a few brooks where you can find naturally reproducing brookies. These fish are small. Even as adults, only a few inches long; maybe a foot or so for a real big survivor.

Tough or Wimpy?

The streams where you can find wild brookies are also small. Twisting through the woods, they’re often small enough to step across, blessed with the shade of trees in headwaters and maybe open and marshy down low, with lots of undercuts for shade and shelter.

Depending on who you ask and what mood they’re in, the wild Eastern brook trout is either among our wimpiest of fish – constantly frail, on the edge of life and susceptible to warm temperatures and low oxygen – or one of our most resilient species, tough enough to survive thousands of years of New England’s changing landscapes and harsh climates, from sweltering, water-starved summers to frozen-solid winters.

Tough or wimpy, modern times are testing the brookie’s resilience. Development, roads, dams, pitched culverts, poor forestry and other land uses have obliterated, warmed, blocked and choked many streams that were brook trout strongholds for thousands of years. On top of all that, a warming climate isn’t helping.

One study estimated that wild stream populations of brook trout have vanished or are greatly reduced in nearly half of their watersheds. And most of their populations are fragmented.

Reconnecting Our Streams

Little wonder that the speckled beauty is likened as the canary in the coal mine. The health of its habitat is tied to the health of many other species, from salamanders to dozens of other fish and invertebrates. Its waters must be clean, cool and free-running.

As always, there has to be hope. As more people realize that the wild Eastern brook trout is a poster child for healthy streams and forests, some folks are stepping in the right direction.

One big step is the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a collaboration among state and federal agencies, regional and local governments, businesses, conservation organizations, academia, scientific societies, and private citizens. Since 2006, the Venture has leveraged is ability to work with partners and draw from science to fund and complete projects from South Carolina to Maine, restoring streams and improving habitat. Modeled after the North American Waterfowl Management Plan, the Venture is exactly the kind of collaboration that helps maintain momentum for conserving brook trout.

Even locally, we see examples of hope. In Hancock, one farsighted landowner decided to rebuild his farm-pond dam with a small fish ladder to accommodate brook trout. And on a nearby road, the town recently replaced a problem culvert with one that has a natural-like bottom and can handle the brook trout’s amazing journey.

A little south, in the western Massachusetts town of Whately, The Nature Conservancy helped the town rebuild a culvert over a stream where brook trout passage has been studied for many years.

In the grand scheme of things – like the long-term survival of Eastern brookies – these measures are modest examples of many. But they’re a start, and they’re among a growing number of projects moving in the right direction. They’re helping to keep streams flowing freely, well-shaded by healthy forests, free of non-native species and running the way nature intended.

Eric Aldrich writes from his home in Hancock.