Ask people in our area about native trout species and you might be surprised with what you hear. Many are not aware that brown trout is European and that the rainbow trout is native to the Western United States. Before these non-native species were transplanted to the area, there was only the brook trout and its larger big brother, the lake trout, inhabiting our state's coldwater streams, creeks, ponds, and lakes.
New York's official state fish is the brook trout for good reason. These beautiful fish are considered a keystone species - a true 'canary in the coal mine' indicator of a healthy ecosystem. Brook trout inhabit countless coldwater streams, creeks and ponds and display incredible colors, particularly during the spawn. Old-time literature and pictures document huge catches before catch and release was even a dream. Unfortunately, significant habitat changes due to industry, pollution, deforestation, and population growth have led to a decline in the brookie.
Conservation is turning the tide of decline for the brook trout, thanks to the efforts of conservation groups, and in particular, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV). That's the message that Emily Zollweg-Horan, Senior Aquatic Biologist, NYS DEC, delivered to a packed meeting room at the January monthly meeting of the Al Hazzard TU chapter. In her hour-long presentation, Zollweg-Horan covered the following:
- Power in numbers. Emily stressed that the EBTJV involves a wide range of public and private groups, including academia, conservation organizations like TU, local, state and federal government and their agencies such as the DEC, and the general public - landowners and volunteers. Across this diverse membership there is power in resources - financial and non-financial - that can be used to help improve habitat and restore brook trout in their native range.
- It's all about habitat. The EBTJV is not a stocking program. Much like TU's approach to conservation, the EBTJV's focus is on improving the habitat or as Emily referred to it, the 4 "C's" - Clean, Clear, Cold and Connected habitat. She showed numerous examples of threats to the 4C's in her presentation, such as culverts that won't allow fish passage, large open areas around waterways that allow warming, road and parking lot run-off, and degraded structure. For the brook trout, high water temperature is a killer.
- Strategy. The EBTJV is seeking to 1) Protect the best of the best, where brook trout are thriving, 2) Re-establish what's been lost, where brook trout could once again thrive, 3) Strengthen what we have, 4) Prevent declines, and 5) Determine the status of the unknown, where potential habitat has not been surveyed.
- Data rules. EBTJV uses a science-based approach in improving brook trout habitat. This includes extensive stream surveys, collection of data, data and knowledge sharing, data analysis, and modeling. The hard work put forth has resulted in significant progress over the 10 years the program has been in existence. EBTJV has enhanced or restored 208 miles of habitat, re-opened 278 miles of streams, removed 69 barriers to fish passage, and improved 254 riparian acres.
The fight is not over. The EBTJV has a long way to go. There are still many miles of streams and creeks to survey, many hundreds of riparian acres to improve, and lots of waterways to reconnect. The Eastern Brook Trout was here from the beginning. Don't we owe this great gamefish, our state fish, the chance to once again flourish and grace our waters as they once did so many years ago? Please see the EBTJV website for more information on this most worthy cause.