Colonial era dams in Yaphank are causing higher water temperatures in parts of the Carmans River and should be removed or opened, environmental advocates say.
The groups Defend H2O and SeaRun Brook Trout Coalition say the dams create thermal pollution by artificially spreading out the water and slowing it down, allowing it to collect heat. Restoring the flow would reduce temperatures, halt the spread of invasive species and return natural fish passage routes to the river, reducing the need for costly dredging and other treatments, they say.
These dams have been there since the 1700s, and seems like the only appeal they have now is related to the lakes they hold back. People there like the lakes.
It’s always a question of values. Brook trout are on the verge of being extirpated in so many places. On Long Island, the Carmans is one of a just a few rivers that still have populations of brook trout, which used to be everywhere in the greater New York City area. Now, it’s just another remnant population barely hanging on.
I’m filing this under Fishing Reports. This is not a fishing report per se, but it’s relevant…
Due to a winter that never really arrived, the Mid Atlantic states are experiencing an early spring. Everything has been happening sooner this year. In my yard, the crocuses started blooming over two weeks ago and they’re fading now. That is at least two weeks early. Daffodils are flowering all over, again, two weeks earlier than usual. Following these botanical cues are the bugs, the hatches, and of course the fish. Fishing season is coming sooner this year for sure.
Reports are confirming all of this. Douglas Dear from Rose River Farm in Syria Virginia reported this past week that Quill Gordons have started hatching — two weeks early. Murray’s Fly Shop reported Quill Gordons coming off the water yesterday afternoon in Shenandoah National Park as well. Bryan Kelly at Kelly’s White Fly Shop in Shepherdstown, West Virginia sent an email yesterday about smallmouth bass fishing around Harper’s Ferry on the Potomac and Shenandoah Rivers: “We are starting to guide this month. The fish are moving out of their winter patterns towards pre-spawn behavior. Spawn will be early, and summer patterns will be early… You need to be early…” If this pre-spawn behavior is starting now, that’s closer to three weeks earlier than last year in my neck of the woods along the main stem of the Shenandoah. Incidentally, he goes on to mention that the cicadas will be emerging along the northern section of the Blue Ridge this year, so tie up some big cicada patterns.
So this could be shaping up as a phenomenal early season for us. Hopefully it’s not going to mean that the hot, low clear water conditions come early and stay longer, too. Perhaps we’ll see a nice stretch of cool rains in mid to late spring to break us out of this warm dry pattern we’ve gone through this winter.
From a piece by Nick Lyons, “Following a Fluid Trail Even Higher,” originally published in the New York Times “Outdoors” column on February 22, 1996 and reprinted in the excellent book of essays, Upriver and Downstream. His curiosity compelled him to trace the trails of rivers and reservoirs feeding New York City, further and further upstream, into the Catskills and to the headwaters streams that hold what are, in too many places, the last of our native brook trout:
These are wild brook trout — five, six, sometimes eight inches, on rare occasions a foot long. They have flanks as smooth as an otter’s skin, a dark mottled back, rose marks the color of wild strawberries, and striped fins. They wiggle like live jewels when you hoist them out of the water.
Greedy and wanton to their near extinction, vulnerable, full of a wildness that cannot protect itself, these fish are the ultimate symbol of piscatorial wildness, and it delights me to catch a dozen on barbless hooks and slip them swiftly back into their element. When I first climbed to the fountainhead of all city water and saw them, I stopped thinking of exotic Canadian fish and knew I had found a quiet place that satisfied all my longings.
Little do these diminutive flashes of light and color know the fate, downriver, of the precious, pure liquid in which they flourish. Little do they care — so long as it is there, so long as the great cities do not drink them into extinction. They are beautiful, rare creatures that dance in my head and I think of them even now, in the dead of winter, every time I turn on and turn off the faucet.
For people who cannot comprehend why anyone goes to the lengths they go in order to catch these little fish, this passage may help reveal what captures the imaginations of those of us who do this. Or maybe not, in which case a lot of hope for humanity is simply gone.
My own view is that while it may be possible to do hydraulic fracturing safely in a lot of places, there have been so many allegations of energy companies contaminating groundwater and dumping the wastewater from fracking operations irresponsibly that it’s hard to feel confident about how safe it is. And I still don’t feel comfortable hearing from these companies that there is no reason to worry about the millions of gallons of water and toxic fluids being injected into each gas well since, as they claim, these fluids are put so far below the water table that this stuff will never find its way back up to contaminate our groundwater.
How many times have we heard from companies, “Trust us, it’s safe,” only to find out years later how wrong they were. Once groundwater is contaminated, it’s not easily cleaned up. We don’t even know where a lot of this water goes once it seeps into the ground. We don’t have extensive maps of underground reservoirs and waterways. How can anyone guarantee the safety of the waters we drink and fish without understanding this in much greater detail?
Be circumspect about all this. The brook trout that rely on all this groundwater are watching closely!
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).
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.
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.