September 18, 2013

GEORGE SMITH: Climate change threatens fisheries, including Maine's brook trout

George Smith

WE'VE HEARD AND read a lot about the alarming increase in green crabs in coastal waters, and the devastating impact the crabs have had on mussels and clams. Lobsters may be next.

The city of Brunswick even appropriated $100,000 to work with local clammers to try to save their clam flats.

Warming coastal water, caused by climate change, seems to be the problem. Crabs thrive in the warmer water.

We have heard far less about the impact of climate change on inland fisheries, but perhaps we started to change that a couple weeks ago when I participated in the roll-out of a new report from the National Wildfire Federation titled, "Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World."

The Natural Resources Council of Maine organized the event, a telephone news conference moderated by the council's Dylan Voorhees.

Just four hours before the telephone press conference, Harry Vanderweide and I taped a "Wildfire" TV show with Pat Sirois, coordinator of the Sustainable Forestry Initiative, about his work with private landowners on culverts and road crossings that are installed so as to allow brook trout to move upstream to their spawning grounds.

Tens of thousands of culverts across the state block fish passage because they are too small and/or improperly installed. We've been entirely unsuccessful at the Legislature in enacting new laws and rules to require better culverts, mostly because of strong opposition by the Maine Municipal Association, based on the higher cost of installing culverts correctly.

I have to credit Sirois, along with the state's large private landowners and Maine Audubon, for stepping up and creating a partnership called the Fisheries Improvement Network to work on fish passage issues in Maine. Sirois directs the FIN and has become an expert about culverts and road crossings.

He has created, in partnership with Maine Audubon, an excellent training session about these issues.

Bad culverts are not the only threat to Maine's native brook trout. The legal and illegal introduction of competing species has been a terribly destructive epidemic, inadequate protection through rules and management have caused an alarming decline in native brook trout, especially in southern and central Maine, and acid rain and deteriorating water quality have taken a toll.

As we struggle to fix these problems and save our remaining brook trout, however, we look to the skies for what may be the final blow to this magnificent fish.

Brook trout must have cold clean water. They gather in spring holes in our lakes in the summer or travel up brooks and streams or to rivers to escape warmer lake water when they can. Many studies have documented rising temperatures in major rivers and lakes across the country.

A 2012 die-off of lake trout in Lake Auburn is used as an example in the new report. The cause of the die-off was warmer water and a deluge that washed a lot of nutrients into the lake, causing an algae bloom that robbed the trout of oxygen.

Yes, this is a complicated problem and includes weather events that leave brooks and streams swollen and overflowing and later, reduced to a hot trickle.

Vorhees says the biggest thing we can all do now to address this problem is to advocate for the passage, at the federal level, of new controls on power plants. Contact members of Maine's congressional delegation to encourage them in this direction, today.

And then you ought to join and support organizations that recognize these issues and are active on initiatives to solve these problems. In January, there will be a major push at the Legislature to offer better protective measures for wild brook trout in waters that haven't been stocked in at least 25 years.

It is strongly opposed by ice anglers who use live fish as bait, one of the ways new competing species get accidentally introduced into brook trout waters.

We already have provided this protection for brookies in the 300 waters that have never been stocked, thanks to legislative support six years ago for a bill proposed by the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine, during my tenure there, and sponsored by then-Sen. Chandler Woodcock.

It would be really neat to move that protection to the wild brook trout waters while Woodcock is commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Considering all of the challenges of protecting our brook trout, officially designated this state's Heritage Fish, and given the fact Maine has 97 percent of the nation's remaining native brook trout, we must do all we can for this fish.

Shame on us if we lose them.

George Smith is a writer and TV talk show host. He can be reached at 34 Blake Hill Road, Mount Vernon 04352, or georgesmithmaine@gmail.com. Read more of Smith's writings at www.georgesmithmaine.com.

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