Pennsylvania has more flowing waters than any other state in the contiguous United States. Brook Trout and Lake Trout are the only two salmonoid species native to Pennsylvania and brook trout were once found in almost every county in the state. Land use, industrialization, and over-exploitation during the 1700s and 1800s severely reduced brook trout numbers throughout large swaths of the Commonwealth.
Changes in laws regarding land use, the harvest of lumber, and industrial pollution have resulted in improvements throughout the state in terms of water quality and habitat. Numerous streams and large rivers in Pennsylvania have been reclaimed from the devastating effects of Abandoned Mine Drainage (AMD). Some of these reclaimed waters now host self-sustaining populations of brook trout for the first time in more than a century.
As our planet warms, thermal refuge for brook trout is undeniably the most important factor for the long-term survival of the species. Conservation work to restore riparian buffers, reverse the negative impacts of AMD, and improve connectivity are likely to have the greatest effect on the future of brook trout in Pennsylvania. Numerous nonprofit organizations, state agencies, and private citizens are carrying out this important work every day.
In the early years of our nation’s birth, records recount the netting of brook trout by the thousands for consumption. Much in the same way that early settlers saw the trees and mineral resources of Pennsylvania as a resource to be taken, so too were the brook trout that inhabited our numerous brooks and rivers.
In 1883, a ship by the name Werra steamed into New York harbor. Onboard the vessel were moss-lined containers filled with 80,000 brown trout eggs from Baron Lucius von Behr, president of the German Fishing Society. In those early days, people were mostly concerned with feeding themselves and settling into the new world. Brown trout were seen as a suitable substitute to brook trout due to their more flexible habitat and water quality requirements.
Gifford Pinchot was a Pennsylvania forester, angler and associate of Theodore Roosevelt. In those days, there was no word for the interrelationship of waters, soils, forests, fish and game. Pinchot, who had founded the Society of American Foresters, coined the term “conservation” to describe this dynamic between the woods, waters and animals that inhabit them.
Roosevelt thought so highly of the term and Pinchot himself, that it became a keynote of the Roosevelt administration. When Pinchot became governor of Pennsylvania, he saw to it that brown trout were propagated and distributed throughout the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.
Brown trout were successful at surviving in the degraded waters of Pennsylvania where native brook trout could not. Over the next one hundred and thirty years, brown trout would expand throughout Pennsylvania with help from our state agencies and private organizations. Their expansion via natural reproduction and with the assistance of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s continued propagation and distribution continues to this day.
As our society has progressed, we no longer accept unrestricted harvest of trees, unmitigated industrial discharge of pollution to our waters, or the unchecked harvest of wildlife. We’ve also learned a lot about the impact of nonnative species since the days when Pinchot coined the term “conservation.”
Brook trout are extremely vulnerable to the effects of predation and competition from
other fishes, particularly in the first years of life (Bonney 2001). The potential impact of
stocking hatchery-reared trout on top of self-sustaining brook trout populations includes genetic alteration due to interbreeding or altered selection pressures (Hindar et al. 1991; Kruger and May 1991; Allendorf et al. 2001); displacement (Waters 1983; Larson and Moore 1985; Hindar et al. 1991), and the introduction of diseases (Goede 1986; Hindar et al. 1991; Kruger and May 1991; Stewart 1991).
While a warming climate, loss of habitat, and pressures from nonnative species are likely the most important factors impacting brook trout, harvest continues to be a detrimental pressure on the future of the species.
In 2007, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Division implemented catch and release regulations on over 100 miles of interconnected brook trout waters in the Savage River watershed. Annual population monitoring in the Upper Savage River watershed has indicated that the regulations have resulted in a stable population even with normal environmentally driven annual fluctuations. Additionally, compared to non-regulated sites throughout Maryland, the upper Savage River has maintained statistically significant greater brook trout densities for each year of monitoring following the regulation change.
As a result of the findings in the Savage River watershed, Maryland recently passed a statewide angling regulation requiring the release of any brook trout caught east of I81 and in all stocked waters west of I81. Similarly, New Jersey recently created a “brook trout conservation zone” where the harvest and/or possession of brook trout is prohibited.
In order for brook trout to survive the future impacts of climate change, we need to work hard to provide them every protection and opportunity that we can. Everything from water quality protections to changes in stocking practices to harvest regulations should be used to protect, conserve, and enhance the last remaining populations of brook trout in Pennsylvania.