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Right Regulation/Wrong Species

As of August 2023, Pennsylvania has no angling regulations for individual trout species. This means that, unlike many other states in the brook trout’s native range, Pennsylvania has no angling regulations created to protect native brook trout. All trout angling regulations are applied to all species. Brook trout have the same angling protections as brown trout and rainbow trout.

To be fair, Pennsylvania’s harvest length limit (7 inches) was revised to protect brook trout. However, the harvest length was applied to all trout species, so wild brown and rainbow trout also benefit from the regulation. While the objective of protecting brook trout by increasing the statewide harvest length was stated during discussions and presentations on the subject, the failure to apply the regulation to brook trout alone means that most anglers likely have no idea that the regulation was created to protect brook trout.

During the 155th meeting of the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission’s board of Commissioners on July 24th, 2023, Dave Nihart (chief of fisheries) presented a proposal for 13 sections of Class A trout streams managed under a dual classification of Class A and stocked trout waters that would prohibit the harvest of brown trout while allowing the harvest of rainbow trout. One of the streams, Yellow Creek in Bedford County is managed under a Fly Fishing Catch & Release Only regulation and does not apply to this regulation change.

You can watch the presentation below:

If approved, it would be the only active trout species-specific angling regulation in the state. The concept of protecting one species of trout while allowing the harvest of other species is not a novel concept. It is very similar to the regulations Maryland implemented in 2020 to protect brook trout. In Western Maryland, all waters that are stocked with trout (MD doesn’t stock brook trout and hasn’t for a long time) allow the harvest of brown trout and rainbow trout but prohibit the harvest of brook trout. Many other states in the eastern United States have regulations to protect brook trout while allowing the harvest of nonnative trout. I fully support the concept of angling regulations designed to protect important species. It’s unfortunate that Pennsylvania decided to use this management tool to protect brown trout before implementing a similar regulation to protect brook trout.

MD Brook Trout Sign

However, this would not be the first time the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has applied regulations to different trout species differently. Between 2004 and 2015, the state piloted an experimental angling regulation called the “Wild Brook Trout Enhancement Program” (WBTEP) aimed at protecting larger brook trout. The program allowed angling year-round with no tackle restrictions and allowed the harvest of nonnative brown and rainbow trout, but required all brook trout be released.

Brook Trout Enhancement Program
PA Fish Boat Commission Brook Trout Enhancement Study Waters

The stated objective of the WBTEP was to “enhance wild Brook Trout populations by increasing the number of adult (≥100 mm) and larger (≥175 mm) Brook Trout in headwater streams.” (LINK). In other words, the stated objective of this program was to increase the number of large brook trout in these small headwater streams. According to Detar et al., in a research paper published in the North American Journal of Fisheries Management (linked above), the program failed to achieve its stated goal and was officially terminated in 2015.

There were several problems with the design of this study and the implementation of the regulations. First, the regulations aimed to increase the number of large brook trout present in the streams managed under this regulation. This would imply that the only factor limiting brook trout size is angling and harvest. I’m not sure how this ever passed peer review. Brook trout size is a function of many factors, and limiting one doesn’t necessarily mean that all the others are present to achieve the desired outcome. Second, the regulations were applied to small sections of first, second, and third-order streams except Kettle Creek (the only stream that showed an improvement in the number of larger brook trout after regulation implementation). This is somewhat tied to the first issue in that habitat size, connectivity, habitat quality, water quality, food resources, presence of nonnative trout, and a host of other factors play a role in average fish size. Lastly, the program’s goal should have been to either increase the population size, protect the species, or both. The goal of increasing the number of larger brook trout implies that the regulation’s only purpose for this critical conservation species is angling.

Unfortunately, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission has used the “failure” of the Wild Brook Trout Enhancement Program as justification for failing to implement any brook trout catch and release regulations. While the program failed to achieve its stated goal of increasing the number of larger brook trout in Pennsylvania when applied to small individual stream sections, other states have proven that catch and release angling regulations for brook trout have had other benefits to the species. Namely, in Maryland, the MD DNR stated that the catch and release regulations applied to the entire upper Savage River watershed,

“Annual brook trout population monitoring has indicated that the upper Savage River supports a stable population even with the normal environmentally driven annual fluctuations. Furthermore, compared to pooled sites open to harvest by anglers (2 fish per day, no closed season) from around the state, the upper Savage River has maintained statistically significant greater brook trout densities for each year of monitoring following the regulation change.”

Maryland DNR
Large Brook Trout
Maryland Wild Native Brook Trout

Research has shown that brook trout need large, interconnected watersheds to maintain robust populations and ensure genetic diversity. Angling regulations need to be applied at this same scale to be effective. The “failure” of the WBTEP does not imply that angling regulations aren’t effective for brook trout; it simply means that you have to apply the regulations to a larger region or network of streams and rivers instead of small sections of tiny headwater streams.

Maryland Catch Release Area

In 2020, the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission published their four-year (2020-2024) trout management plan (LINK). It’s worth mentioning that the agency had created an independent brook trout management plan sometime around 2005 (no date was provided on the document), which has since been scrubbed from the internet. The new plan is called the “Strategic Plan for Management of Trout Fisheries in Pennsylvania 2020-2024,” and combines all trout species into one plan. It’s also worth pointing out that the brook trout, our state fish, is the only “trout” species listed as a species of greatest conservation need in the state’s wildlife action plan.

The current “trout plan” does list several items that are specific to brook trout. Over the past three years, the commission has implemented many of the goals outlined in the trout plan. However, there appears to be a clear bias toward implementing regulations that benefit brown trout. Specifically, the expansion of the slot limit program that was piloted on Penns Creek and was created to increase the number of larger brown trout present, and changes to the language concerning the harvest of trout downstream of stocked trout waters, which was aimed at protecting “large migratory brown trout.” It’s worth pointing out that the slot limit program (allows the harvest of trout between the size of 7″ – 12″) effectively permits the harvest of all brook trout sizes while protecting the vast majority of medium-sized brown trout. I submitted public comments suggesting that brook trout be isolated in the regulation since it unfairly puts every brook trout in Penns Creek at a disadvantage to brown trout.

Penns Creek Brook Trout
Brook Trout from Penns Creek

One of the most significant regulations passed by the commission is the “Notice of Stocking” which was originally supposed to be a “Stocking Authorization” issue #8 in the trout plan. Similar to the statewide size limit that might have been largely created to protect brook trout, but really benefited all wild trout species, this regulation will likely help protect some brook trout by creating a documentation requirement for private stocking, but also benefits other wild trout species. It’s likely that individuals are stocking brook trout streams that shouldn’t be stocked, and the notice of stocking may uncover some of these situations. Again, this was supposed to be a permitting program for private stocking, but after pushback from the aquaculture industry (trout farms) the state backpedaled and turned it into a simple notice to the agency.

Finally, the only significant change implemented by the agency that does benefit brook trout specifically, is the reduction in the number of hatchery brook trout stocked by the state and its co-operative nurseries. Unfortunately, this change was quietly slipped in with no notice to the public other than a document published online, which seems to have disappeared now. The document barely mentioned how stocked brook trout can be detrimental to wild brook trout if the stocked fish successfully reproduces with the wild brook trout. Rather than educate the public on the dangers of introducing hatchery genetics into wild populations, the state instead focused on how brook trout are more costly to raise, don’t transport well, don’t stay where they’re stocked, and don’t survive well for fishing season.

Below is a summary of the trout management plan and the status of items they’ve addressed to date. ❌ = Incomplete, ✅ = complete, 🟡 = Unknown, Highlight = Brook Trout Specific

  • Issue 1: “Unassessed Waters” The state still has many miles of waters that have been unassessed to determine whether they contain wild trout. ✅ (ongoing)
  • Issue 2: Update Class A list. ✅ (ongoing)
  • Issue 3: 13 Class A/Stocked Trout Waters (the point of this article) ✅(est. 2023)
  • Issue 4: Improve water protections with DEP 🟡
  • Issue 5: Improving Public Access ✅ (ongoing)
  • Issue 6: Design program to track growth/loss of wild trout populations ❌
  • Issue 7: Gill Lice/Reduce Hatchery Brook Trout ✅
  • Issue 8: Stocking Authorization ✅(est.2023)
  • Issue 9: Address Effects of Human Development 🟡
  • Issue 10: Brook Trout/population loss/species shift/Climate Change/Identify critical habitat ❌ 🟡
  • Issue 11: More habitat improvement projects 🟡 likely ✅ ongoing
  • Issue 12: Remove physical barriers ✅ ongoing
  • Issue 13: Wild Trout List Formatting ❌
  • Issue 14: Improve Flow Regime and water withdrawal (tailwaters) 🟡
  • Issue 15: Change trophy trout regulations/increase min length ✅ (est. 2021)
  • Issue 16: Expand Slot Limit ✅ (est. 2022)
  • Issue 17: Examine impacts of C&R 🟡 ❌ (unknown/no changes in regs)
  • Issue 18: Angler Use Survey 🟡 ❌ (Survey conducted/no report)
  • Issue 19: Invasive Species ✅ (part of stocking notice)
  • Issue 20: Develop Class B & C list ❌
  • Issue 21: Add to Wilderness Trout Stream List ✅ ongoing
  • Issue 22: Improve wild trout angling promotional material ❌

Summary: ❌ = 7, ✅ = 12, 🟡 = 7

Regulations applicable to brook trout alone (3/22): ❌ = 1, ✅ = 2

Regulations applicable to brown trout alone (4/22): ❌ = 0, ✅ = 4

Regulations applicable to all species of trout (22/22): ❌/🟡 = 10, ✅ = 12

What stands out to me as a person focused on brook trout is that only 3/22 issues are brook trout specific, even though the species is the only trout species listed in the state’s wildlife action plan, is our only native stream-dwelling salmonid and is the focus of the Chesapeake Bay Agreement. Meanwhile, there are 4/22 issues that are really brown trout specific. The 13 stocked/class A’s, tailwaters, trophy trout regulations and the slot limit expansion. It’s worth noting that in addition to the brown trout specific regulations mentioned in the trout plan, the commission also implimented a change to harvest regulations on waters downstream of stocked trout waters. Again, the purpose of this regulation was explained to protect “large migratory brown trout.” So in reality, a 5th regulation resulted from the trout plan that was created specifically for brown trout bringing the total regulations specific to brown trout between 2020 and 2023 to five. None of the brown trout centric issues in the trout plan have been ignored.

The only brook trout specific issue in the trout plan that hasn’t been completed is issue 10. Specifically, issue 10 strategy two states: “Between 2020 and 2024, the PFBC will assess the density and occurrence of wild Brook Trout and Brown Trout between historic and contemporary surveys to determine if changes have occurred in the distribution and ratios of these species. Results of this project will inform management actions and may identify issues such as impacts of increasing water temperature, habitat degradation, among others, along with areas of greater wild Brook Trout resiliency.

In 2023 I inquired about the status of this issue and strategy two specifically. This is the response I got back from the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission about the status of this strategy; “Specific to Issue 10, Strategy 2, staff plan to work with the USFWS in 2023 to develop a study design and timeline to address this issue.  As such, Issue 10, Strategy 2 is currently in the early stages of the planning phase, and there are currently no documents to provide.”

Of concern is that in three years the only action taken on this issue is a single meeting. More concerning is that the Fish & Boat Commission haven’t kept track of species abundance in streams within the commonwealth. The data the PFBC collects when surveying streams relates to biomass. i.e., how many lbs per hectare of trout are present in the stream. Biomass is a poor indicator of species gain/loss. Only in extreme situations would biomass indicate a species shift. For example, if a stream was surveyed in 2000 and found to have a “wild trout” biomass of 45lbs/ha comprised of 10lbs/ha of brook trout and 35lbs/ha of brown trout, and then it was surveyed in 2023 and found to have 48lbs/ha of “wild trout” comprised of 1lb/ha of brook trout and 47lb/ha of brown trout, that might indicate that brook trout have been displaced.

What biomass wouldn’t show is if a stream reach had 2,000 brook trout comprised of several year classes in 2000 and then in 2023 that reach had 400 brook trout comprised of two year classes while brown trout went from 400 individuals of two years classes to 3,500 brown trout of 6 year classes. That would show that brown trout have displaced brook trout. Without historical abundance data, we’re effectively starting at ground zero, having already lost an unknown number of brook trout over the past 50 years or more.

The concern here is that the PFBC seems to be interested in establishing species data to justify any species-specific angling regulations to protect brook. That data may take another 10 to 20 years to gather. Meanwhile, a mountain of research from other states has already confirmed that brown trout displace brook trout. Even without data to support displacement in order to justify brook trout specific angling regulations, data that would show an overall decline in the number of brook trout in the commonwealth might also justify a need for better protections. Unfortunately, that data doesn’t seem to exist in Pennsylvania either.

Meanwhile in Maryland, the state’s DNR started gathering data on brook trout presence in 2014 by looking at sampling data all the way back to 1987. Maryland found that the state experienced a loss of brook trout between 14.9% and 49.3% or 27% statewide during that time. As a result of Maryland’s research, the state implemented statewide angling regulations in 2020.

Pennsylvania continues to be years behind other states regarding brook trout management. There appears to be a significant difference in the bar required to justify any kind of regulation change for brook trout while that bar remains extremely low for nonnative trout species. The state tends to use the term “wild trout” more often than to identify any trout by species. This implies that they’re doing things for “all trout,” even though these species have vastly different requirements, and one species is a significant cause of the loss of another. It gives the impression that the state expects the species to duke it out on their own with little interference from the state from a regulatory standpoint. Unfortunately, we all know that will eventually result in the near complete loss of brook trout statewide.

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