Pennsylvania – An Underachiever

Brook Trout Stream

I had started down a path of building a spreadsheet and collecting data on all the states in the Eastern Brook Trout’s range, and how they rank in terms of brook trout protections and conservation. Instead, I thought I’d just point out the obvious.

I was recently watching a video on youtube by Brookibum about brook trout in West Virginia (HERE). In the video, a few fisheries managers are interviewed and a large, wild male brook trout is shown in their hatchery operation. This made me start thinking about what Pennsylvania is doing to conserve brook trout.

Several years ago, the EBJV had solicited brook trout conservation plans from the states within the brook trout’s native range. Pennsylvania submitted theirs, and you can read it HERE. The majority of the “Short Term Goals” have to do with brook trout habitat protections, identifying the presence of brook trout in unassessed waters (this overlaps the larger, generic unassessed waters initiative) and to monitor a random pool of representative populations.

The bulk of what Pennsylvania does in terms of habitat protection is to sample waters, establish a classification based on the biomass of the water, and then apply protections to that water with DEP water classification regulations. It’s a straightforward way to protect streams, watersheds and wetlands from development, logging or other destructive human impact.

The majority of the remaining short term and long terms goals have to do with habitat protections and improvements. One long term goal is; “Restore and Enhance Brook Trout Populations” which seems to indicate a select number of streams would receive extra attention in terms of habitat protection, restoration and enhancement. They also wanted to identify 5 streams where brook trout have been extirpated and implement a plan to restore the populations in those streams.

The remaining goals have to do with promotion and education about the species and their habitat. There is mention of outreach campaigns to draw attention to the importance of brook trout conservation. The document ends with a broad statement of; “Comprehensively manage brook trout fisheries”.

Cold Mountain Brook Trout Stream

To the best of my knowledge, and with as much research as I can perform short of filing right-to-know requests, little, to none of the above was actually executed. There are several goals that state a completion date of 2010 and 2015, which was 10 and 5 years ago respectively. I’ve followed the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s social media accounts throughout that timeframe, and brook trout are probably one of the most infrequently mentioned topics on their accounts.

The only goal that I would say the PAF&BC has actually worked on and made progress with is the classification of unassessed waters. In fact, throughout that timeframe, they have consistently added more and more streams to the Class A and Wild Trout Stream lists, which get the streams assigned value codes with DEP, which in turn, results in increased protections from impact where permits are required to impact a stream.

The biggest deficit I see in terms of how brook trout are managed (or not managed at all) in Pennsylvania, is that there are no stream level, watershed level or other protections from an angling and more importantly, stocking standpoint. The current approach to brook trout conservation in Pennsylvania, at least as far as the PA Fish & Boat Commission is concerned, is that they’re the indirect beneficiary of habitat protections. Period.

Meanwhile, our neighbors to the South and East are making real progress in brook trout conservation. Actual brook trout protections from a regional and angling standpoint. Maryland has recently proposed to make brook trout catch & release only in put-and-take waters in the Western region, and catch and release only in ALL waters east of I-81. New Jersey has recently implemented a brook trout conservation zone which includes most of Northeast New Jersey.

In Pennsylvania, one of the most egregious mismanagement practices is stocking over native brook trout populations. One of the downfalls of the way Pennsylvania is approaching brook trout conservation, is that only the most fertile, highest density streams (Class A) get the protections from stocking. Even then, some Class A stream sections are still stocked. There are numerous lower biomass brook trout streams throughout PA where the Fish & Boat Commission continues to stock non-native species over the existing wild brook trout populations.

In the brook trout management plan mentioned above, “non-native species” and their impact on brook trout is mentioned one time, and it’s only in the introduction as a mention of one of the stressors. Nowhere else is the non-native species (brown trout) mentioned as a goal for action. This is one of the issues with approaching brook trout conservation from a habitat only standpoint. It’s highly likely that any habitat improvement, protections or enhancements end up benefiting brown trout, and sometimes even favoring brown trout.

Brown trout pose a serious threat to brook trout populations, and yet, nothing is done to address this increasing problem. I’ve watched brook trout populations in streams like PA-1A significantly decline in my lifetime. The population there has “flip-flopped” from predominantly brook trout, to predominantly brown trout over the course of about 30 years. Ironically, I attribute the population change to habitat improvement projects. I theorize that jack dams with plank waterfall features actually trap brook trout downstream in low flow summer months when the water gets too warm for brook trout, but is still within the survival range for brown trout.

A new potential problem I’ve uncovered recently is something I hadn’t considered in the past. Some time ago, I had fished the upper headwater section of PA-1A and encountered almost all brown trout above a certain area of the stream. Then, recently, I noticed a post on social media by someone in another part of the state where they reported encountering the same phenomenon. Essentially, brown trout moved into the uppermost reaches of the stream and displaced the brook trout. This is happening due to unusually low flow and higher stream temperatures. So the brown trout are taking over the most thermally suitable section of the stream and forcing the brook trout to reside in the marginal downstream section.

This is completely counter to most arguments I’ve heard about brown trout and brook trout “coexisting” in a stream. The theory I’ve always heard argued is that brook trout stay up in the coldest headwater section, and brown trout stay down in the warmer water. I now think that’s not the case at all, and is actually the exact opposite. This would be another factor in why the brown trout have taken over that stream.

The only silver lining (if you can call it that) in Pennsylvania, is that very recently, the state published a proposed trout management plan, where, for the first time, brook trout are actually mentioned as a conservation subject in their TMP. While the changes are minimal, they may be somewhat significant. They plan to reduce or completely eliminate brook trout stocking in Pennsylvania. Unfortunately, they also mention that the brook trout stocking will be replaced with “other species” including brown trout. The cessation of brook trout stocking is undoubtedly the result of recent introductions of gill lice into wild brook trout populations from hatchery fish.

While the changes are minimal, and in my opinion, inadequate, it’s encouraging to see brook trout mentioned specifically by the Fish & Boat Commission at all. I hope that as we move forward, more work is done to protect brook trout. Pennsylvania is far behind the curve on brook trout management, and the result is less than ideal brook trout populations throughout the state. Time will tell whether ground can be made up.

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