Study: Brook Trout Imperiled Throughout Eastern United States

Brook trout populations have been eliminated or greatly reduced throughout almost half of their historical habitat in eastern areas of the United States, according to an assessment released on May 3 by a coalition of state and federal agencies, along with environmental groups.

"Brook trout are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to water quality," said Gary Berti, Trout Unlimited's Eastern Brook Trout Campaign Coordinator. "The presence of brook trout in a watershed indicates that water quality is excellent. Declining brook trout populations can provide an early warning that the health of an entire stream, lake or river is at risk."

The report, "Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats," is the first comprehensive assessment of the status of brook trout in the eastern United States. The fish historically thrived in rivers and streams stretching from Maine to Georgia, but land use pressures have largely relegated the remaining isolated populations to the headwaters of high elevation streams.

Brook trout populations remain strong in only 5 percent of their historical habitat in the eastern United States. They have been eliminated from 19 percent of their historic habitat, and they are greatly reduced in another 27 percent of habitat that formerly supported brook trout. Maine is the last true stronghold for brookies in the East, although Vermont, Virginia, New Hampshire and New York all boast high-quality habitat and strong populations.

"While these results are sobering, state fish and wildlife agencies and other conservation partners are already pursuing many opportunities for conservation of remaining high-quality habitat as well as restoration of impaired streams," said Eric Schwaab, resource director, Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies. "Our collective challenge is to protect our remaining brook trout habitat and restore populations wherever possible."

"Brookies are quick to respond to habitat improvements," explained John Ross, chairman of Trout Unlimited's Virginia Council. "We have already seen the results of our work with state and federal partners on streams like the St. Mary's here in Virginia. By scaling up these programs throughout the state and region, we will see wild brook trout returning to our streams. And that's great news for all of us who love to fish locally with our families and friends."

This assessment represents the first stage of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture's collaborative efforts to restore brook trout habitat. The Joint Venture was initiated in 2002 as a pilot program of the National Fish Habitat Action Plan. Participants include fish and wildlife agencies from 17 states, federal partners, conservation organizations and academic institutions. The results of this assessment will be used to develop state-by-state strategies for brook trout conservation and recovery.

The full report, as well as state-specific data and maps, are available at http://www.brookie.org.

This article originally appeared in the 05/01/2006 issue of Environmental Protection.

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