Bay Journal

Only the most pristine streams good enough for brook trout

  • By Kathy Reshetiloff on September 01, 2011
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The eastern brook trout is the only native trout in the Chesapeake watershed.  (U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service)

The brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) is a small, brilliantly colored freshwater fish native to clear, cold streams and rivers in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed. The state fish of New York, Pennsylvania, Virginia and West Virginia, The brook trout is the only native trout in Chesapeake Bay watershed.

Brook trout are recognized by a dark green back covered with lighter worm-shaped markings. These markings, resembling the pattern created when the sun shines through rippled water, help to camouflage brook trout from predators such as larger fish, herons or fly fishermen. Bluish sides are sprinkled with yellow spots and red spots surrounded by blue halos. The brook trout's fins are starkly edged in white, which again is unique among other common trout.

These fish thrive in clear, silt-free, well-shaded freshwater streams with numerous pools and a substrate consisting of mixed gravel, cobble and sand. Because brook trout are not tolerant of water temperatures above 75 degrees Fahrenheit, they are rarely found in developed areas.

Brook trout are not picky eaters and eat a wide variety of food items. Opportunistic feeders, they will eat whatever they can find: aquatic insects, like mayflies, caddisflies and stoneflies; land insects that fall into the water, like ants and beetles; small crayfish; and even small fish and minnows, but only when they are easy to catch.

Brook trout spawn in autumn, mainly in October to November. A female uses her tail to create a shallow nest or "redd," often near the lower end of the pools where the gravel is swept clean of silt, and fresh, oxygenated water is abundant. There, she deposits eggs, which the male then fertilizes. During spawning, the lower flanks of males become brilliant orange and older males may develop a slightly hooked lower jaw.

The female covers the fertilized eggs with gravel. The eggs incubate through the winter months and hatch out in the early spring. Brook trout mature in two to three years and live about six years. Most grow no more than 9 - 10 inches. A 12-inch brook trout is rare and considered a real trophy.

Brook trout have always been prized, and the small, game fish is an especially popular catch for fly fishermen. Historically noted for their recreational value, brook trout are very significant biologically. Because they require pristine, stable habitat with high-quality water conditions, brook trout are viewed as indicators of the biological integrity of streams.

As water quality in headwater streams has declined, so have brook trout populations. Currently, 388 of 1,294 subwatersheds in the Chesapeake Bay are classified as "reduced" for brook trout.

Urbanization affects brook trout through the loss of streamside vegetation and shade, increased sedimentation, reduced flow, increased high-flow events, changes in the physical makeup of stream beds, and increased impervious surface.

Agriculture impacts to brook trout populations are similar to those of urbanization - higher water temperature, increased sedimentation, hydrological changes and loss of streamside vegetation.

Additionally, livestock can damage stream banks, increasing the erosion of sediments into waterways and adding nutrients.

Mining activities impact brook trout populations through acid mine drainage, hydrological changes and physical habitat degradation.

Non-native fish, such as brown trout, compete with native brook trout for food and habitat. Brook trout populations can become isolated as a result of physical barriers like dams, decreasing the genetic diversity and survival of the species.

Recognizing the significance of brook trout habitat, as well as the widespread detrimental effects of its decline, has led to the creation of various alliances, such as the multi-state Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture and the Maryland Brook Trout Alliance. In May 12, 2009, President Barack Obama signed the Chesapeake Bay Protection and Restoration Executive Order requiring a renewed commitment from federal agencies to protect and restore the Chesapeake Bay, as well as sustain fish and wildlife.

Federal, state and local agencies as well as conservation organizations are working together on several key actions to conserve and protect native brook trout, including identifying and prioritizing brook trout restoration and conservation projects; restoring brook trout habitat through natural channel design incorporating bank stabilization and instream structures; planting streamside vegetation; removing unneeded dams and other stream blockages; and promoting livestock fencing

For information about protecting and restoring brook trout go to:

≈ The Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture: www.easternbrooktrout.org

≈ Strategy for Protecting and Restoring the Chesapeake Bay Watershed: Goals and Outcomes: http://executiveorder.chesapeakebay.net/.

About Kathy Reshetiloff

Kathryn Reshetiloff is with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kathy Reshetiloff

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