All fish are not created equal. I personally believe we’re headed down a dangerous path as it relates to brook trout conservation in Pennsylvania. We have to be careful not to manage our water simply for the water and “wild trout”.
Our state has a long history of being reluctant to change. Whether it’s old-fashioned “blue laws” that prevent hunting or fishing on Sunday or the way our booze is managed. So it’s difficult to fault anyone for finally focusing on “wild trout”. The standard operating procedure in Pennsylvania has always been to stock hatchery-raised fish wherever they would see the most “use”.
On one hand, it’s good to see non-profit conservation organizations and even the state Fish & Boat Commission focusing on wild trout. Unfortunately, when it comes to the interactions between wild native brook trout and nonnative wild brown trout, one has been scientifically proven to displace the other. As is evident by the numerous studies cited in the recent petition to PA Fish & Boat HERE brown trout (and rainbow trout to a lesser degree) will displace brook trout.
A recent proposal by PA Fish & Boat which changes the regulations on waters downstream of Stocked Trout Waters (STW) will become Catch & Release in the extended season (Labor Day until the opening day of trout season the following year). The admitted design for this regulation is to “protect large migratory wild brown trout”. My concern is that to my knowledge, nobody has studied or even mentioned what impact this desired outcome might have on wild native brook trout.
We know now due to movement studies carried out in northcentral Pennsylvania that brook trout move downstream after spawning and use the larger rivers to “over-winter”. So what will the impact on brook trout be if we increase the number of large migratory (and predatory) wild brown trout that inhabit those same waters in the winter?
The lack of focus on brook trout in Pennsylvania by our state Fish & Boat Commission is extremely concerning. It appears to be at a point where not only are they not doing anything specifically for wild native brook trout, they’re also not even considering potential impacts on wild native brook trout due to proposed regulations.
This lack of focus extends far beyond current regulations however. The state continues to stock brown trout directly downstream of wild native brook trout throughout the state. Recent studies indicate that a majority of anglers are practicing Catch & Release today. If that’s true, then every fish stocked by the PAFBC that is capable of reproduction in the wild has to be considered as a potential wild population generator.
So while it’s good that people are concerned about wild trout these days, I think we need to be really careful that we’re not favoring a species that may ultimately displace another entirely. What good is habitat improvement if it favors a nonnative species that ends up displacing the current resident native species? Are we destined to have a “brown trout only” state? The sad thing is that I’m certain at this point that there are a lot of people out there who are completely ok with that potential outcome.
The most concerning aspect of all of this to me is that it’s extremely hard, if not impossible to turn back the clock. Once a waterway has a self sustaining population of wild brown trout, there is virtually no way to get rid of them. Even if we arrive at a point in the future where removal is absolutely necessary to protect the last few remaining populations of brook trout, without physical barriers (which present their own problems) there is likely no way to prevent natural reintroduction of the nonnative species.
Pennsylvania has thousands of miles of wild trout water. Most of that is wild brown trout water. I don’t know how much more wild brown trout water we need. The continued stocking, protections, and enhancement of wild brown trout is only compounding a future problem for our wild native brook trout population. We’re only sealing the fate of our native species.