A new plan to restore the United States’ declining fisheries and fish habitat could bring new resources to Chesapeake Bay restoration efforts, including efforts to restore brook trout habitat in tributaries to the Bay. But, some river experts worry that a bold plan to increase restoration funding could be like an age-old fish story—the big one that got away.

A coalition of state and federal government officials, conservation organizations, and fish and tackle businesses such as Bass Pro Shops have jointly developed a National Fish Habitat Action Plan that would by 2010 assess the condition of all marine and freshwater fish habitats in the nation and identify “priority habitats” for protection and restoration.

Under the plan, all healthy fish habitat would be “protected” by 2015. And, at least a dozen regional projects or “joint ventures” would be launched to improve the condition of at least 90 percent of priority habitats by 2020.

Although regional projects have not been finalized, at least two would be in the Bay watershed, according to federal officials. The Bay Program recently requested that its Fish Passage Taskgroup, which consists of state and federal agencies representatives working to remove impediments to fish migration throughout the Chesapeake watershed, be considered for a regional partnership

“We know that if we want more fish, we need better habitat,” said Dale Hall, Director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The National Fish Habitat Action Plan is the first-ever blueprint that addresses this reality on such a grand scale.”

Despite spending billions of dollars, regulating polluters, removing and retrofitting dams, and limiting fish harvest, the status of some of the nation’s fisheries is even worse today than when Congress passed the nation’s landmark environmental laws three decades ago.

Many fish species are declining, some are on the verge of extinction, and some are already gone. A team of scientists recently concluded that freshwater species of fish, clams and snails are disappearing five times as quickly as birds, bugs and other land-dwelling creatures.

Overall, 149 fish species listed are now so rare that federal officials have officially classified them as threatened and endangered and in need of legal protection. In addition, 72 species of clams, 37 species of snails, and 22 species of crustaceans are also considered threatened or endangered by the federal government.

State and federal resource agencies, conservation groups and fish-dependent businesses are hoping that the plan, part of a new National Fish Habitat Initiative, will be as successful as the National American Waterfowl Management Plan, which was launched in the 1980s and has contributed to steady increases in waterfowl populations. That plan resulted in a series of joint ventures across the nation to leverage and target waterfowl habitat restoration funds.

It was a big plan that resulted in a big commitment to federal spending.

But some questioned whether waterfowl restoration serves as a good model for fish. In the murky world of restoration science, waterfowl habitat restoration is relatively simple—water levels are often managed through pumps and dikes, and plants can be selected to attract certain species.

In contrast, fish habitat is influenced by a much wider variety of factors. Water quality can be impaired by sources hundreds of miles upstream. And, the timing and quantity of water is often at the mercy of farmers, cities and dam operators with competing goals for water management. The quality of the river’s bottom—which can be buried in sediment or dredged for navigation—is as important as the quality of the water. And, most riverside property is owned by private landowners who have little incentive to protect and restore riverside forests and wetlands.

Efforts to create the initiative date to 2002, when recreational fishing and boating industry leaders called upon the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to launch a nationwide effort to protect fish habitat. Service leaders endorsed the concept and in 2003 enlisted the association that represents state fish and game agencies to lead the development of the initiative.

Meetings with hundreds of marine and freshwater fishery experts in 2003 and 2004 around the country led to the development of the action plan, which was released at a ceremony on the banks of the Potomac in April as lawmakers and others tossed lines into the river seeking to hook migrating shad.

So far, the coalition of more than 400 organizations, agencies and businesses have little more than a big plan to show for their efforts.

Less than $5 million in new fish habitat restoration funding has been made available by USF&WS and the National Marine Fisheries Service. The nonprofit National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, also a major player in the initiative, hopes to raise $25 million over the next five years to support restoration projects.

No agency or organization has ever estimated how much it would cost to restore or protect the nation’s high priority fish habitats, but experts say restoring big rivers and estuaries like the Mississippi and Columbia rivers and the Chesapeake Bay would carry a big price tag and take decades to complete.

In the meantime, regional partnerships to restore “priority habitat” can stretch existing dollars.

One such regional partnership is the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, which is the first pilot project launched by the National Fish Habitat Initiative. A broad consortium of agencies, academics, businesses and conservation groups have already begun to document the status of the eastern brook trout, which is found in states stretching from Georgia to Maine, including parts of Maryland, Pennsylvania and Virginia.

Brook trout populations have been eliminated or dramatically reduced throughout almost half of their historical range, according to a recent assessment by Trout Unlimited and others.

“Brook trout are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to water quality,” said Gary Berti, Trout Unlimited’s Eastern Brook Trout Campaign Coordinator. “The presence of brook trout in a watershed indicates that water quality is excellent. But, declining brook trout populations can provide an early warning that the health of an entire stream, lake or river is at risk.”

The fish face a variety of threats—ranging from farm runoff to the loss of riverside buffers that once kept streams cool—and land use pressures have largely relegated the East’s few remaining brook trout to the headwaters of high elevation streams. As a result, brook trout are commonly found in less than 5 percent of their historical streams, and mostly in New England and New York. But, the popular sport fish are “quick to respond to habitat improvements,” said John Ross, Chair of Trout Unlimited’s Virginia Council.

“We’ve already seen the results of our work with state and federal partners on streams like the St. Mary’s here in Virginia,” Ross said.

Once more is known about threats to the fish and potential solutions, regional officials plan to work together to prioritize restoration efforts, leverage funds and track their progress.

Under the National Fish Habitat Initiative, a status report on all fish habitat will be released in 2010 and updated every five years.

No one argues with the need for new investments freshwater and marine habitats.

“Much of the progress we’ve made during the past 30 years has been through the use of regulatory tools,” said Tom Busiahn of the USF&WS

Bushian said building partnerships with local officials and landowners and making better decisions about the use of scarce resources will be the key to success in the future. And, he said, a coordinated campaign by conservation and business leaders will bring more attention to the needs of fish and their habitat.

“There’s never been a coordinated approach to fish habitat,” he said. “That’s the piece that’s been missing.”

Federal budget constraints—driven by the rising costs of entitlement programs and ongoing spending for the war in Iraq—have left the Congressional committees that finance agencies with less and less funding. Fish habitat advocates see modest increases in fish habitat restoration funding during a time of tight budgets as an important measure of their success.

Trout Unlimited, American Rivers and other national river groups have for several years led efforts to lobby Congress for more river restoration funding, including the publication of a “river budget” and a “citizen’s agenda for rivers” that has been endorsed by more than 500 organizations. While some programs have enjoyed greater funding—especially programs that reward farmers for good stewardship or finance the removal of small dams—others have been cut or eliminated, said Peter Raabe, a budget expert with American Rivers.

Offices are filled with dust-covered plans to restore the nation’s rivers and bays that were never implemented, Raabe said. And some experts privately worried that joint ventures are just another layer of bureaucracy that will create more red tape or divert funds away from other successful regional efforts.

“State and federal scientists and resource managers already use sound science to identify priorities for aquatic habitat restoration in our region,” said a scientist who is working to save imperiled freshwater species in the Southeast and was worried that the joint ventures were more about river politics than priorities or protection. “We need more money, not more meetings,” he said.

What might be different about this initiative, Raabe said, is the level of commitment of the private sector and the leadership of state officials. “The businesses that have the most to gain from healthy rivers could become a powerful political ally,” he said.

National Fish Habitat Action Plan at a Glance

The plan is:

  • Non-regulatory and voluntary;
  • Locally and regionally based, and driven by grassroots partners;
  • Focused and targeted toward fisheries protection, restoration and enhancement in key watersheds;
  • Based on a consolidation of the best scientific expertise on fisheries and habitat management;
  • Linked nationally, to facilitate comprehensive coordination and evaluation of progress; and
  • Sustainable and accountable, recognizing the need for long-term investments and demonstrable results.

The Plan will be implemented through these four strategies:

  • Support existing fish habitat partnerships and foster new efforts.
  • Mobilize and focus national and local support for achieving fish habitat conservation goals.
  • Measure and communicate the status and needs of aquatic habitats.
  • Provide national leadership and coordination to conserve fish habitats.

Together, these approaches will lead to actions that are strategically employed and results that can be measured against protection, restoration and enhancement goals.

Source: www.morefish.org, a campaign of the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation to support the plan and its implementation.