August 19, 2012

Troubled waters for wild brook trout

Non-native predatory fish are taking a big bite out of Maine's brook trout habitat.

By Deirdre Fleming dfleming@pressherald.com
Staff Writer

The future looks bleak for Maine's wild brook trout.

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Fisheries specialist Scott Davis holds a large rudd, an invasive fish he caught June 21 in Cobbosseecontee Lake in Winthrop.

John Patriquin/Staff Photographer

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More and more, big, voracious predator fish such as pike and bass have been illegally introduced in forested, cold mountain streams that flow through idyllic trout habitat. And state agencies find it nearly impossible to stop it.

If the rate of those illegal introductions continues, the number of wild brook trout waters in Maine will decline, biologists say. And if nothing is done, Maine one day could lose its distinction as a trout-fishing destination.

"The wild trout waters are a huge concern. There is no doubt about it. When bass show up, brook trout don't stick around for any length of time," said Merry Gallagher, the head fisheries researcher with the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. "What we know about brookies is they do quite well living in all habitats, but you throw in a strong competitor, they tend to leave. An invasive throws them over the edge."

Maine is king of wild brook trout waters in the continental United States. And brook trout are the No. 1 freshwater game fish sought by anglers who fish in Maine, according to the University of Maine School of Economics. But because some fishermen prefer fish species not native to Maine -- such as black bass, crappie and northern pike -- the state's wild brook trout populations are in danger of being lost.

The invasive predator fish kill off the trout or the fish they feed on. Other trout migrate elsewhere through adjoining waterways to escape the bigger fish, leaving their survival to chance. In addition, new research shows non-native warm-water fish putrefy the clear trout habitat, Gallagher said.

Illegal stocking of non-native species can draw a $10,000 fine. But in the past 10 years, just seven fishermen have been charged and only four convicted in cases that resulted in fines of no more than $1,000, according to the Maine Warden Service.

At the same time, illegal stocking of invasive species has been confirmed in at least 64 state water bodies in the past six years, and has likely occurred in 33 others, although these are unconfirmed, Gallagher said.

The problem brought together outdoor leaders at the Sportsman's Alliance of Maine headquarters last week. And the steady pace of non-native fish introductions has fish biologists wondering how many wild brook trout waters will remain in Maine in 30 years.

"We will become Connecticut. We will end up with a homogeneous landscape, so there will be all species everywhere. It's one of the things that makes Maine unique, to have the only species in a pond be brook trout. Unfortunately, every week, there are reports of new introductions," said Gordon "Nels" Kramer, the regional fisheries biologist in eastern Maine.

NATURAL RESOURCE AT RISK

There are 331 wild brook trout waters in Maine that have never been stocked, as well as an additional 267 waters with wild brook trout that have not been stocked in 25 years. This significant inventory of wild trout waters adds up to a natural resource unique in the United States. And all of it is at risk, state biologists universally agree.

"I would say if all the wild brook trout waters got bass in them, it would be a death knell for them. Could we get them back? Not to the extent that they are today," said Greg Burr, the regional fisheries biologist in the Downeast region.

Brookies prefer cold, clean spring water, and their abundance here is a symbol of Maine's pristine waterways. But while wild landlocked salmon, also native to Maine, can coexist, albeit in smaller numbers, alongside competition from bigger fish, wild brook trout cannot.

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