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Trout Stocking in Virginia and the Impact on Brook Trout

Evil Invasive Fish

It occurred to me that I don’t know much about the trout stocking program in the state. I’ve sort of assumed that most of the trout stocked are rainbow trout, with some browns. The places I’ve fished that are stocked by the state are typically rainbows as far as I know (Big Stoney Creek, Passage Creek, the Jackson River, etc.). I just did a Google search and found a couple references to Virginia stocking both rainbows and brook trout in the Robinson and Rose Rivers near Syria, Virginia (see here too).

Nick Karas, in his seminal work Brook Trout (seminal for those interested in the species, anyway) mentions how programs in Virginia to stock brookies may have impacted the populations I once thought were purely native. He writes, “Virginia’s waters have been stocked with domesticated brook trout for so many years that the integrity of the wild strain has probably been compromised. However, those brook trout populations at the highest elevations are probably little changed genetically from the original [native] stock.” And for better or worse (mostly worse), what’s left for us to catch is almost all in the higher elevations — Shenandoah National Park, the Blue Ridge Parkway, the Alleghenies, etc. In a recent Trout Unlimited interview Mr. Karas again mentions the detrimental effect of stocked brook trout on native populations. It’s been an unfortunately common story throughout the brook trout’s historic range in the east — not just state-run stocking programs but introductions of invasive species by “bucket biologists” are a huge problem in many places, maybe most famously in the Adirondacks. Throw in a little acid rain and other environmental factors and things get bad very quickly for brook trout. In the Adirondacks only 3% of the known brook trout waters remain inhabited by these fish. Three percent.

The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture’s website is one place where you can see the gory details on the state of brook trout in the eastern U.S. Trout Unlimited’s Conservation Success Index is another. What is apparent is that stocking streams with invasive fish is just one item on a long list of things conspiring to slowly decimate native trout. From the TU CSI (with my emphasis added): “Like other salmonids in the char genus, brook trout are intolerant of water pollution and non-native fish, and are classic indicators of water quality and ecosystem integrity.” And the CSI’s stark summary of the state of the eastern brook trout:

  • 62% of subwatersheds in the historic range are currently occupied (3,282 out of 5,278)
  • 1.5% of subwatersheds with brook trout had a Total CSI score > 75 (out of a possible 90)
  • Median Range-wide Condition score = 15/25 for extant populations only (range 9-24)
  • Median Population Integrity score = 7/15 for extant populations only (range 6-15)
  • Median Habitat Integrity score = 13/25 (range 5-24)
  • Median Future Security score: 18/24 (range 10-24)
  • 8% of subwatersheds priority for protection
  • 12% of subwatersheds high priority for reintroduction
  • 62% of subwatersheds priority for restoration

Overall, it’s not encouraging. “Non-native fish” are mentioned as threats five times on the CSI’s main page (and “exotic species” is in there at least once, too).

(click to enlarge)

To the left is a map showing the CSI scores for the east coast’s historic brook trout population areas. Anything blue is really good (that’s just 0.5% of the total, all in Maine), green is pretty good (5.1%, and in Virginia we have some of those areas), and the other colors show bigger impacts. Note that gray means extirpated, also known as local extinction, or according to Merriam Webster, “rooted out and destroyed completely” — that may be a good description of people “fishing out” watersheds over the centuries. The main colors that jump out at you when you look at this map are red and orange, the lowest scoring areas, which together comprise 70.2% of the total. These are the areas most affected by “[e]xtensive land use alterations, the establishment of competing non-native fish, and heavy urbanization…”

Anyway, here in Virginia I’m not always sure what to believe now. You hear about native fish in many places, and they are out there. But you can’t be certain that the streams rumored to have native fish have only that, and this is of course because of our long history of stocking domesticated and invasive fish mostly for recreation. Unless you’re a brook trout or a big fan, most would say stocking catchable invasive trout is not all a bad thing. Nevertheless, the impact on native fish is significant.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries is a little vague on the types of fish they raise. The VDGIF hatcheries page does mention one hatchery specifically, Wytheville, that raises brook trout. However, it indicates that “trout from Wytheville are stocked in the waters from roughly Grayson County north to Bland.” All other mentions of trout on that page say only that — “trout” — without differentiating which types of trout are reared, and the stocking schedule doesn’t say anything about what species are stocked, either.

But... you're OK?

The practice of stocking domesticated brook trout seems less of an issue for the native fish, rightly or wrongly, than the practice of stocking what are really invasive species — rainbows and browns. In Shenandoah National Park I have caught rainbows well inside the park boundary on both the Hughes River and the South Fork of the Thornton River. But officially, it is the brown trout that is the villain. The National Park Service has special brown trout regulations that are kind of goofy (also clarified on the VDGIF website). Any brown trout caught must be disposed of, but there is a seven inch minimum size to harvest brown trout. So if you catch a six incher, you can’t “harvest” it but you have to kill it. OK, but at least the message is clear — do not return them to the stream. Why aren’t there similar regulations for rainbows in the park (i.e. “dispose of them when caught”), since they are also known to compete with and often out-compete brook trout? The NPS website has a page about rainbow trout in the park, and it even notes how they do in fact compete with brook trout. This really begs the question of why the NPS does not treat browns and rainbows the same way, and the bigger question of why Virginia stocks these fish at all in streams inhabited by mostly or totally native strains of brook trout. It’s all especially curious when they tout “National Park Service policy mandates that exotic species will not be allowed to displace native species if displacement can be prevented.” Seems like stocking invasive rainbow trout can surely be prevented.

I should mention here that I am not a biologist, naturalist, fisheries manager, activist or expert on this subject. The folks who do this know more than I do about managing these resources. However, a lot of the concern I read comes from exactly these people. And it just doesn’t make sense that if you want to preserve a native fishery you would stock aggressive invasive species, whatever the type, just downstream.

The NPS website specifically mentions the Rose River, Hughes and Brokenback Run as having browns, and big ones. “Large adult brown trout over 18 inches long with weights in excess of two pounds have been captured within the park in traditional, wild brook trout habitat.” I don’t like the thought of these fish displacing our native species, but catching an 18 inch brown trout on a small stream in the park sounds like a hoot. Then you have to take it home for dinner. I can think of worse things in the name of conservation. There’s that not-all-bad attitude, even with me.

So is it all terrible news? Well, it sort of is. The overall trend is decidedly downward for these fish. There are pockets of effort to reintroduce brook trout populations (see Trout Unlimited’s Shenandoah Headwaters Home Rivers Initiative, for example) but overcoming centuries of damage while human population increases, development continues and climate change is occurring makes it tough to see how things will ever improve for brook trout. We can restore streams and preserve habitat, but what’s gone is probably not coming back and most of the rest is slowly getting ruined. Stocked trout, while providing fun recreation for many of us, is just one factor but may be a lot worse for our native fish than anyone wants to admit.


Brook Trout Could Be The Only Thing Separating Marcellus Gas Drillers from Fortunes

In the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette this past Sunday was an article about recently discovered trout populations in Pennsylvania. The Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission is going to vote on whether to designate “98 streams statewide as Naturally Reproducing Wild Trout Waters, following the recent discovery there of trout populations, some by volunteer anglers working in a program that trains them to do stream surveys.” Interesting article with a lot of details and quotes from people in the environmental, state government and gas factions.

This could trigger further testing and land use restrictions that could impede Marcellus shale gas drilling operations in some areas. I’ll mention again that I think gas drilling done safely would be great, but the natural gas drilling industry has a spotty record so far.

Pennsylvania has some great online resources but I can’t keep them all straight. They have great fishing maps with all types of water and regulations shown. Then they have all these designations like Class A Wild Trout Streams, Streams that Support Natural Reproduction of Trout, Wilderness Trout Streams and more. The 98 streams mentioned in the article above are going to be voted on for inclusion in one of these categories. I could guess but I’m not completely sure which of these is it.

Maryland Lawmakers Warned of Natural Gas Drilling Risks

Gas Well
Hydrofracking, courtesy of

Last week I wrote something about the potential risks of Marcellus shale gas drilling and hydrofracking and how this is very possibly something that will affect water quality and therefore brook trout. I just read an article in the Baltimore Sun about the former head of Pennsylvania’s Department of Conservation and Natural Resources and his take gas drilling. In a meeting with Maryland lawmakers, his advice is to be careful (emphasis below is from me):

“If you have time to do additional studies up front, I would recommend it,” said Quigley, now a senior fellow with a Pennsylvania environmental group. The former manager of Pennsylvania’s state forests said his state has experienced major problems with contamination of drinking water wells, mainly from improperly drilled gas wells.

In one instance, Quigley said, a poorly drilled well caused natural gas to seep a mile underground and bubble up in the middle of the Susquehanna River. There also have been spills of diesel fuel and of the fluid used in fracking, he said.

While much of the fluid remains underground, some is pumped back out and must be treated because it is very salty and contains minerals and other contaminants from the shale, including radioactive substances.

This is exactly the kind of stuff people should be worried about. I’m all for gas drilling if it is always done safely, but many of these drilling operations have a mixed record so far.

Act Now to Save Bristol Bay

Pebble Mine
Pebble Mine Footprint

Now is the time to contact your elected representatives as well as the head of the Environmental Protection Agency if you are concerned about the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed. Orvis has set up a Bristol Bay action page to send letters to your senators, representatives and Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, asking them to investigate the impact of this mine.

In case you are not aware, the proposed Pebble Mine would be sited at the headwaters of two of the main rivers that feed Bristol Bay. This watershed supports the largest sockeye salmon run in the world (by far) and is one of the largest salmon fisheries in the world. Pebble Mine is fraught with huge risks. It would require the world’s’ largest earthen dam to contain the 2 billion to 10 billion tons of toxic mine waste produced, in a very seismically active area.

This mine is one of those ideas that just does not make sense in light of its risks. Contact your elected officials now to register your concerns. Here is a copy of the letter I wrote. I edited the text provided on the Orvis site:

Protect Bristol Bay – Concerns About Pebble Mine

I am writing today to encourage you to use your authority under the Clean Water Act to take a hard look at how the proposed Pebble Mine in Alaska’s Bristol Bay watershed will impact our nation’s biggest wild salmon fishery, the commercial fishermen and Alaska Natives who depend on it and the local businesses who make their living off of this wild landscape in Southwestern Alaska.

If built, Pebble Mine will produce between 2 and 10 billion tons of toxic waste that will have to be treated for hundreds of years. Located in a seismically active region, the mine would require the world’s largest earthen dam to be built, around 700 feet high and several miles in length. Independent scientists have questioned whether the dam could withstand the force of a massive earthquake, such as the 9.2 quake that devastated Anchorage in 1964. Because of its size, geochemistry and location, Pebble runs a high risk of polluting Bristol Bay, one of the world’s last remaining strongholds of healthy salmon populations, including the largest sockeye salmon runs in the world. The region provides pristine spawning grounds for trophy rainbow trout and all five species of Pacific salmon and a variety of wildlife that depends on the nutrients from salmon, clean water, and undisturbed habitat.

I urge you to initiate a Clean Water Act 404(c) process in Bristol Bay immediately. Alaska Natives, sportsmen, commercial fishermen and conservation organizations deserve a public and science-based process to determine if the Pebble Partnership’s plans to build the biggest open pit mine in North America will harm one of our nation’s greatest fisheries.

Thank you for considering my views.

Montreal University Study on the Effects of Antidepressants in Brook Trout

Happy Fish
It's All Good, Man

Fish in many waterways are loaded with antidepressants due to our increasing use of these drugs, according to a study by professor Sebastien Sauve of the University of Montreal. “Residue from antidepressants leaves through bodily waste and ends up in our waterways. Sauve said that his study indicates that the problem of antidepressants contaminating marine animals is probably global.” Waste water treatment plants are not able to filter these chemicals.

The study found that brook trout in the St. Lawrence river have large quantities of antidepressants in their livers and brains, and much smaller amounts in their muscle tissue. Even very small concentrations of pharmaceuticals in waterways have been linked to significant changes in those ecosystems.

The problem of pharmaceuticals in our rivers is not new. Reports of intersex smallmouth bass in the Potomac River have raised the possibility that this is linked to chemicals from pharmaceutical and personal care products.

Marcellus Shale Hydrofracking, Pollution, Ground Water and Trout

Infrared Shot of Gas Plant
Infrared Shot of Marcellus Shale Gas Plant

The debate about the safety of hydraulic fracturing of rock deep in the Marcellus formation to recover natural gas rages on. WTAE in Pittsburgh has a story showing air emissions from a Marcellus shale gas plant in Pennsylvania, and there seems to again be controversy over what exactly is going on with these drilling operations.

I think most people would love to see Marcellus gas production if done safely. That is the whole question with hydrofracking — how safe is it? There are numerous reports of ground water contamination, improper disposal of fracking fluids into river systems, the use of highly toxic chemicals, the exemption from publicly reporting of what chemicals are used and fish kills due to Marcellus gas drilling operations. From the WTAE story, which is about just the air pollution from gas operations:

Pam and Kristen Judy say they’ve been getting headaches, sore throats and nose bleeds ever since this compressor station was built next door. DEP air monitoring in the Judy’s yard last year found evidence of methane, benzene, toluene, acetone and 12 other compounds.

John Hanger, DEP: “The total numbers, once we get to 40,000 wells in this state, of air emissions, unless the industry uses the cleanest technology, will be a problem.”

Ray Walker, Marcellus Shale Coalition: “We’re literally going to be able to move gas or compress gas or treat gas with literally tenths of a percent of the emissions that we used to.” Some of those technologies already exist but aren’t always used. In fact, they aren’t required to be used. Like vapor recovery units that can be placed on tank stacks to prevent the kind of pollution plume you’re seeing here. That’s why the group GASP wants DEP to require the use of cleaner technologies.

The concerns over groundwater pollution are much greater.

Pennsylvania, with over 5000 miles of water containing brook trout, stands to lose a lot if drillers are not responsible or if it is not possible to drill for gas safely, both of which seem to be in question. Brook trout depend on clean groundwater. Humans, not coincidentally, depend on groundwater, too. Groundwater flows deep within the earth’s crust and provides fresh water in our springs, streams, rivers, lakes, wells and irrigation systems. We don’t have maps showing where this water travels deep underground. Injecting millions of gallons of fracking fluids into a gas well is not guaranteed to be contained within the well area, and gas drilling chemicals are often not contained (this link is to a bunch of lawyers with an interest in exposing this, but the site links to actual articles on reputable news sites). And once contaminated, cleaning up a water source thousands of feet underground is not possible, and where that water flows next is not always understood.

It all just begs for caution. And these drilling companies (though I think many share these concerns to a degree) are primarily in the business of extracting gas. If they were primarily in the business of protecting groundwater, then they would be preventing the injection of toxic chemicals thousands of feet underground, and they would not be lobbying state governments and municipalities to accept their contaminated fracking water and allow its disposal directly into rivers.

Reintroducing Brook Trout to Northern Virginia Streams

Tiny Brook Trout

I just ran across this item on the Northern Virginia Chapter of Trout Unlimited. Kirk Smith, a PhD student from George Mason University, spoke to the TU chapter on November 4th about his efforts to reintroduce brook trout into area streams. This guy is doing some really exciting and groundbreaking research to restore local streams to support brook trout.

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Spawning Brook Trout and Why No Fishing Lately

Brook Trout
Brook trout ready to spawn and looking spiffy.

I would love to be hiking around Shenandoah National Park right now catching brook trout. Any other time of the year I would regularly be getting out there. However, as you may know, brook trout spawn in the fall, typically from late September through December. Everyone who fishes for them hopefully realizes that it is best to leave them alone for a few months until after the spawn.

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