NC conservationists work to recover native brook trout
ASHEVILLE, N.C. (AP) — If brook trout could speak, they might have gurgled something like “back off!” to the men stalking them with Ghostbuster-like backpack electrofishers, nets and scissors.
But the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission brook trout team technicians shocked, netted, measured and snipped some fish DNA as quickly as they could, telling the trout how pretty they were, before setting them back into their watery wilderness of the Yellowstone Prong in the Pisgah National Forest.
And if the fish could understand Southern Appalachian English, they would know the momentary distress and disorientation was done out of love, and for their own survival, which in some places in the mountains of Western North Carolina is in dire straits.
“Brook trout have probably lost 70-85% of their historic range. They’ve really retreated up into high elevation headwater systems,” said Jake Rash, coldwater research coordinator with the wildlife commission’s Inland Fisheries Division.
He was leading the brook trout conservation crew on a warm, sunny, early May day. The crew waded the high-elevation Yellowstone Prong that runs quick and clear under alternating pockets of sunlight and shade from river birches and rhododendron through national forest land, just off the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Conservation technicians Kenneth Lingerfelt, sporting the electrofisher backpack and probes that sent electric currents into the stream to momentarily stun the fish, was followed closely by Justin Nichols with polarized sunglasses, a net and quick reflexes, were on a fish-finding mission.
The team’s goal was the “beautiful” brook trout, the only trout species native to Western North Carolina, which through a variety of unfortunate circumstances, has greatly diminished.
In an effort to reverse course for the future of this heritage fish, the wildlife commission and many partners including the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service, Trout Unlimited, the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians and the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, are working to ensure healthy, fishable wild brook trout populations throughout their historic range and set them on a thriving path to sustainability.
“Brook trout are a species of conservation value that mean a lot to a lot of people. Culturally, folks grew up in the mountains fishing for brook trout, and still love to fish for brook trout,” Rash said.
“They have a high recreation value. But being native, they also have a real ecological and biological significance.”
And economic significance. According to a 2015 study on North Carolina’s trout fishing industry, 149,000 trout anglers fished about 1.6 million days in 2014, heaping an estimated $383 million economic impact in local communities through fishing equipment purchases, food and lodging, as well as secondary spending by businesses associated with trout angling and their employees.
Lingerfelt, who grew up in Asheville, graduated from UNC Asheville and has been with the Wildlife Commission for four years, said he caught his very first brook trout in the Yellowstone Prong, so the river, and the conservation work he’s doing, has sentimental significance.
But he said the massive efforts to restore native brook trout aren’t just for anglers’ delight.
“I think it’s important for people to know that we are out here working hard to understand what’s happening with brook trout populations, their health, what’s impacting those populations, so we can educate and further contribute to strengthen the species as a whole in the Southeast,” Lingerfelt said.
“Brook trout are an incredible indicator species for high water quality and good ecosystem health. That trickles down to everything downstream.”
Brook trout are known locally as “brookies,” ”specks” or “speckled trout,” due to the dark green, worm-like markings on their backs and tails, and yellow spots on their sides. They are known for their good looks and especially stunning, bright colors that come on in autumn.
The only Southern Appalachian native trout, brookies were once plentiful in the East, all the way from Georgia to Maine.
They can be thought of us quite picky about their homes. They will inhabit only clean, cold, clear and fast-moving streams at elevations averaging 3,000 feet above sea level here in North Carolina, with plenty of shaded banks and large rocks for nesting and spawning.
Graveyard Field sits at over 5,000 feet in elevation.
While brook trout have historically been a prized game fish, the wild species won’t win any “big fish” records on Instagram. They grow only 5-7 inches long in the wild here, Rash said, and are more often caught, admired and released and than caught for dinner.
Rash talks about brookies like a kid showing off his latest video game: “The cool thing about trout is they’re dark on top, and light on bottom. If you’re looking down, at them, they’re camouflaged. If you’re underneath them, they look like the sky.”
He also admired their torpedo-shaped body, made to orient to the current without having to do much much and still stay on track.
“If we think of these charismatic critters that are pretty, fun to catch, some like to eat them, but what benefits them, absolutely benefits everything else downstream, and that could be a human,” Rash said.
But life took a turn for the worse for brook trout at the turn of the last century. At the end of the 1800s and early 1900s, the logging industry — and road building to reach the giant, deep-forest trees — exploded across the mountains.
The clear-cutting on steep slopes caused significant damage to streams through erosion and sedimentation. This loss of habitat reduced brook trout populations throughout their range, and in many cases, entire populations were lost completely.
Well-meaning attempts in the 20th century to return fish to mountain streams for the fishing public proved to be another hurdle for the brook trout.
“Since that time they have also faced encroachment by other trout. Whether rainbow trout, which are from the West coast, or brown trout from Europe, they have moved in and occupied a lot of the ranges that brook would have historically,” Rash said.
In addition, efforts to enhance the populations in the early 1900s were by stocking brook trout from hatcheries up north, further muddying the native populations.
While not listed as an endangered species, wild brook trout are identified in the N.C. Wildlife Action Plan as a Species of Greatest Conservation Need.
The first step in brook trout restoration is finding out where the native populations still are and figuring out their genetics, Rash said.
To that end, the brook trout conservation crew searches out the headwater streams in the mountains, which are typically in the upper watersheds high in the Nantahala and Pisgah national forests.
There are some 5,000 miles of trout waters in WNC, with more than 700 brook trout populations, Rash said.
After shocking and netting brook trout, the crew anesthetizes them, then weighs, measures and snips off a tiny piece of fin tissue to send to the USGS Leetown Science Center lab in West Virginia, sort of the AncestryDNA.com for fish, to find out who a trout’s daddy and grandaddy are.
The technicians also check the fish for signs of whirling disease, gill lice or other pathogens.
“Using microsatellite DNA analysis, we’re able to compare what we have here vs. other brook trout populations in the state, and the whole range,” Rash said.
“We can see how genetically diverse these fish are, or if they are essentially isolated and inbred, so there’s low genetic diversity. Also, we can determine if there has been any influence from historic hatchery stockings. If we have that information across populations, instead of randomly moving brook trout, it helps us make better decisions about picking what should be the best source population to move fish from and where to move them to,” he said.
It also helps with other conservation efforts, like habitat restoration projects done in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service and nonprofits like Trout Unlimited.
Lorie Stroup, fisheries biologist with the Pisgah National Forest, said the Forest Service’s focus on brook trout restoration is home makeovers, so to speak.
Because WNC streambeds are granitic rock, they are nutrient-poor, Stroup said, and look to the trees for nutrients.
But the intensive logging in the early 20th century ripped out trees right up to the rivers’ edges.
“A lot of our streams in WNC lack large woody debris. We’ve taken sections that were devoid of wood and tried to enhance that,” Stroup said.
Using “hundreds and hundreds” of volunteers, the Forest Service works to improve river access and trails for people to prevent erosion, riparian plantings for bank stability, and install split rail fencing for protection of riparian habitat all along the Davidson River corridor, which is one of the most heavily used sections in Pisgah National Forest.
Volunteers and partners are priceless in fish conservation work, Stroup said, because she is the lone fisheries biologist for Pisgah, which is “covered up” in recreation. The Pisgah and Nantahala national forests together consist of more than 1 million acres of mountainous terrain and are two of the busiest forests in the country with an estimated 5-6 million visitors a year, from anglers to hunters, hikers and mountain bikers.
Stroup also works with armies of volunteers to remove barriers to fish movement, such as bridges and culverts, most recently on Cathy’s Creek, which is a tributary to the French Broad River. The key is to allow fish to move freely through a stream system to connect with other populations, for long term genetic diversity, she said.
“Our goal is to protect what native species we have, whether nonprofits, government or state agencies. Brook trout are our only native trout species. They’ve been resilient, but they’ve also been very sensitive to changes in the environment,” Stroup said.
“The way we’ve used the land in the past has had an impact on brook trout, not to mention putting in rainbow and brown trout, so the competition for food and habitat became critical. We were pretty hard on brook trout at the turn of the century.”
She said even though government land managers, conservation nonprofits and private landowners now see the benefit to undoing past wrongs, keeping a vibrant brook trout population will require constant vigilance.
“I think we’re always going to have to be mindful for restoration opportunities because of the amount of use of our public lands, and with climate change and things out of our control,” she said. “But these species are definitely worth fighting for and keeping resilient.”
Andy Brown, Southern Appalachian stream restoration manager for Trout Unlimited, has been working with the Forest Service and state Wildlife Commission for years on what he sees are the three threats to the viability of native brook trout: sedimentation, fragmentation of habitat and temperature.
Trout Unlimited works to remove culverts that fragment habitat by not allowing fish to get up to areas they need to access to nest and spawn, and to keep trout streams cold by working with private landowners to replant forested buffers, replacing shade on the water.
He said TU also works to remediate old logging roads built adjacent to streams and on steep slopes, leading to runoff and stream sedimentation. For this project, Brown said, the nonprofit has recently launched a citizen science program to get boots on the ground for data collection through sedimentation surveys.
Trout Unlimited will hold two or three trainings a month for next three to four months, Brown said, around Davidson and Tuckasegee rivers and in the Wilson Creek Wild and Scenic River watershed around Morganton and Lenoir.
“You just have to have an enthusiasm to learn and to help out. We emphasize teamwork and fun. If you feel like you’re limited in biological and scientific understanding, you can still hold a tape measure or take photographs,” Brown said.
He admits the volunteers now are mostly “old, retired white guys,” but encourages people of all backgrounds who enjoy being outdoors to help in the group’s conservation work.
Brittany Watkins, 26, of Lenoir, just went to a Trout Unlimited training. … She doesn’t fish but said she signed up because she loves the outdoors and wanted to do something “to contribute.”
“It was really cool, a fun day,” Watkins said of the five-hour training on Wilson’s Creek. The volunteers learned to use an app, download maps, identify drainage points and types of trail tread, and fill out surveys as they hike a trail, answering questions such as “how is water getting off the trail,” and “how much water is reaching the streams?”
“The goal is to see how much sediment is coming off the trail and affecting the fish using the water as habitat,” Watkins said.
Volunteers, whom Brown calls “data loggers,” are asked to commit to a 4-5-hour hike three times a year, with a buddy.
“I love the diversity of WNC and I think it’s important for any fish or animal, to protect their habitat so we don’t lose that diversity,” Watkins said. “It’s one of those things that once you do it, you’re never going to look at trails or rivers the same way. This makes you a steward of the land, when you’re out with your friends.”
While it might seem that brook trout must be doing swimmingly in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park, essentially a half-million-acre nature preserve on the mountainous Eastern Tennessee-Western North Carolina border, fisheries biologist Matt Kulp said that isn’t quite so.
Also a member of the brook trout conservation network, the Smokies might have one of the most serious signs of the species’ decline, said Kulp, who has worked in the park’s fisheries division for 25 years.
In addition to suffering habitat destruction from the logging era and competition from the stocking on non-native rainbow and brown trout, Smokies brook trout have felt the sting of acid rain, to the tune of some 75% of range loss in the national park, Kulp said.
Acid deposition, fueled by pollution spewing from coal-burning power plants in Tennessee, had devastated air quality and plant life at higher elevations in the Smokies. But even after the 2002 Clean Smokestacks Act, and the enormous reduction in fossil fuel burning — 78% reduction in sulphur and 56% reduction in nitrogen, Kulp said — the problem has lasting impact.
“The acid rain is acidifying some of those high elevation ridges and causing additional range loss at top ends, whereas logging and rainbow trout were really a bottom up affect, lower portion of watersheds on up,” Kulp said.
“So much acid rain has been deposited in soils. In many cases, higher elevation soils are approaching saturation for nitrogen. It will take a long time to leach out. The air quality is better, and rainwater is better, but soils are in bad shape. (A recent study showed) it will take to the year 2100 before streams can start to recover so they can start to support fish. In some streams that are more acidified, there’s no fish in the upper ends of them,” he said.
Out of 2,900 miles of streams in the Smokies, only 40% have fish in them, Kulp said..
The park started intensive brook trout restoration in the 1980s through fits and starts, adhering to its mission of protecting and preserving native species and cultural resources.
Kulp said in recent decades, the techniques have been refined, resulting in the restoration of 13 streams and just over 48.5 kilometers (30 miles) of streams since the 1980s.
To get to this point, a lot of focus has been on eradicating the non-native rainbow trout, through electrofishing — making electric shocking passes through a streams two-three times every couple of weeks for a few months with the help of Smokies, Forest Service, Wildlife Commission staff and interns and volunteers — and more recently through a fish pesticide called antimycin.
“It’s a naturally occurring bacteria found in soils, that naturally breaks down. It’s one of five EPA approved fish pesticides. It’s used in very low concentrations — 8 parts per billion over eight hours,” Kulp said. “It’s pretty innovative. We distribute it through buckets of water. It doesn’t harm humans. It kills bacteria. It’s kind of like penicillin.”
Those fish die in place, stay in the creek and remain as nutrients for crayfish and other aquatic organisms and insects. After a stream is deemed “clean” of rainbow trout, crews will start to reintroduce brook trout.
One stream in the Smokies where you can find native brook trout today is Deep Creek near Bryson City.
Anthony Creek in Cades Cove and Little Cataloochee Creek have recently been treated with antimycin, Kulp said, and should be stocked with brook trout soon.
The loss of native brook trout is even more dire on the Qualla Boundary, home to the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, which borders the Smokies in places.
Mike LaVoie, natural resources manager for the EBCI, said wild brook trout, an important heritage species prized by Cherokee anglers for food and recreation, today occupy less than 10% of their historical range in EBCI waters.
These fish have fallen victim as well to habitat degradation and introgression from non-native species, and are threatened by the recent discovery of non-native fish diseases and parasite threats, including whirling disease and gill lice.
“We also have significant concerns based on recent EBCI climate vulnerability assessments conducted with N.C. State that brook trout could be eliminated almost completely from tribal waters by the end of the century,” LaVoie said.
Since 2008, EBCI Fisheries and Wildlife Management has been working on inventory and monitoring to first identify where they have existing wild brook trout populations, completed genetic assessments of these existing populations and performed many habitat projects such as replacing culverts that serve as barriers to movement, stormwater management, and stream buffer restoration to improve bank stability and increase shading.
The tribe is also in the planning phase for identifying suitable streams that have barriers to prevent future non-native trout invasion for restoration. One possible site has been identified on Mingo Creek.
“The EBCI also recently finalized their federally (EPA) approved water quality standards, one of only around 50 tribes in the country, which will allow for stronger protection of wild trout within EBCI watersheds,” LaVoie said.
Also a member of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, LaVoie stressed how important partnerships across agency and state boundaries are when it comes to saving the wild brook trout.
“Brook trout are a key species in terms of a system, a watershed, they’re at the top where the water starts. If we can work on these waters on the top of mountains, that’s incredibly important for everything downstream, for other fish and hellbenders, and people. It’s part of the lure and draw to be here,” said Rash, in emphasizing the role that brook trout play in the ecosystem at large.
“We want to live in a place that is healthy and want our waters to be healthy. What’s good for us, what’s good for critters, it can start with what’s good for brook trout. That’s the beauty of nature. Everything is connected. Nothing is done in a vacuum.”