ClimateWise – Brook Trout, we need to listen to them

By Jeff Witten, Elkins, on behalf of the West Virginia Highlands Conservancy Climate Change Committee 

As I type this article, looking at Shavers Fork on March 28, Elkins has just set a record high temperature of 84° beating the prior record by 3°.

We all know the Eastern Brook Trout is the West Virginia State Fish.  It is the only native “trout” in the eastern US and is treasured in West Virginia not only as a fish, not only as a beauty of art, not only as recreation, not only as a contributor to our economy, not only a magnetic tool with which to teach kids and not only as a part of our state’s history but also as an indicator.

An indicator of what?  It’s the “canary in the coal mine.”  It might be telling us our future.

The US Fish and Wildlife Service says: “‘Brookies’ are considered an indicator species, because they help indicate the health or overall quality of the waters they inhabit.  Large numbers of brook trout found in a stream indicate a healthy environment while a decline indicates deteriorating habitat and poor water quality.”

A “healthy environment” for the Brookie is also a healthy environment for you and me.

Brook trout populations depend on cold, clear, well-oxygenated water of high purity.  Humans do too, not to mention millions of other species of flora and fauna.  But Brookies are the indicator; they are the first to indicate a problem.  We need to listen to them.

The historic range of the Brookie is shrinking.  Trout Unlimited has determined that only 3% of today’s populations occupy high quality habitats or “strongholds,” many in WV.  The School of Natural Resources, West Virginia University, studied the climate change vulnerability of upper Shavers Fork.  They report “continued warming may result in the loss of suitable main-stem habitat and prevent metapopulation.”

Trout Unlimited is dedicated to restoring degraded habitat and reconnecting Brook trout populations. TU, working with partners, invests millions of dollars to improve habitat. 

The Brookies’ range has already been reduced by deforestation and siltation. In addition to chemical pollution and algae growth caused by fertilizer runoff, air pollution has been a significant factor in the disappearance of brook trout from their native habitats.  Acid rain caused by air pollution from burning coal has killed our trees and trout.  Over the years we have addressed many pollution threats and we continue to monitor pipeline construction and siltation threats and violations.

But there is a bigger, growing threat that is negatively impacting our Brook Trout.  As climate change leads to higher water temperatures, the Bookies are threatened.  Not overnight but over time and it is happening now.  

Of course, it isn’t just West Virginia.  Montana forecasts more than a 50% reduction in their native trout habitat by 2080.  A long way off but the decline has already started.

Warming leads to reduced brook trout growth, survival and reproduction and at the same time increases non-native, invasive species.  More intense storm events increase erosion and sedimentation leading to reduced aquatic insect community and fills in spawning areas.  This could lead to the demise of our State Fish.  

I know you care about our Highlands.  What can you do to protect, reconnect and restore Brook Trout habitat to sustain them for future generations?

  1. Spread awareness to others.  Not just about climate change but about its impact on the Highlands you love.  Tell others it is important to you (and likely them) and why.  Personal stories are the most effective!
  2. Let your public officials know how you feel and what you want.
  3. Demand responsible logging.  Retaining mature trees takes harmful carbon out of the air and stores it safely and helps keep our streams cool and clean.
  4. Plant trees.  Especially along stream banks, shade from the sun cools the water.  Stream-side vegetation is also disproportionately good at storing carbon.
  5. Work to remove non-native trout, which can push native brook trout out of cold-water habitats.
  6. Work to reconnect streams so trout can address more and diverse habitat (but remember threats of non-native invasions).
  7. Remove other stressors.  Monitor and improve water quality, restore the natural function of streams (braided channels, connections to flood plains).
  8. Rely on furry friends.  Beavers can do great things for trout waters – for free! 
  9. Enjoy your Highlands. Hike, fish, hunt, camp, birding, nature, fresh air, exercise.
  10. Teach.  Teach kids, grandkids.  
  11. Donate!  WV Highlands Conservancy, WV Trout Unlimited, WV Rivers Coalition protect our streams.