Conservation partnership restores native brook trout to five ponds in five years

brook trout
Photo courtesy of USDA Forest Service/Freshwaters Photo illustrated by David Herasimtschuk

A fine mist rolled off the surface of Round Pond as morning dawned over White Mountain National Forest in Albany, Maine. An old man and his granddaughter hauled a red canoe from Old Town over the gravel embankment, fly-fishing rods in hand. Somewhere in the distance, a brook trout crossed the mirror surface of the lake in pursuit of a mayfly.

Floating on Round Pond today, it’s hard to believe that just a few years ago, the brook trout that now abound in abundance were almost impossible to find here. This pond and the surrounding drainage was rather full of fish like minnows and black bullheads.

In 2011, with the help of Trout Unlimited and the cooperation of the Forest Service, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife began an ambitious rehabilitation project.

The program, called “5 in 5,” reclaimed five ponds in and around White Mountain National Forest for native brook trout in just five years.

The brook trout, with its characteristic orange belly and speckled sides, is a popular fish in the eastern United States. They only survive in cool, exceptionally clean water. Their native range is vast; brook trout once dominated the waters of northern New England.

However, due to human introductions, other species are now competing for space and resources or even preying on small brook trout.

“Native brook trout did not evolve with strong competition from other species,” said James Pellerin, fisheries biologist for the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife. “Invasive fish species are one of the biggest problems affecting Maine’s native cold-water fisheries today.”

For decades, the Forest Service has worked with partners to restore cold-water fish habitat and increase the population of native brook trout in eastern watersheds. Managers added large logs to streams to create deeper pools and winding channels, giving fish a chance to survive floods and droughts. Biologists and engineers worked with partners to rebuild and replace undersized culverts that prevent fish from migrating upstream. Taken together, these efforts create an ideal habitat for native brook trout.

However, creating more habitat for native brook trout is not enough to ensure healthy populations in the future. Like any ecosystem, ponds and streams are limited in the number of fish they can support. Although reclamation is an intensive process, it is often managers’ only hope of returning native fish to their historic range.

“You can think of a pond the same way you think of a pasture or a forest. If a field can only sustainably support a certain number of creatures grazing on it, a pond ecosystem has the same kind of limits to its carrying capacity,” Pellerin said. “Reclamation ensures that all of this potential productivity goes to the brook trout and not to other more competitive invasive species.”

“Maine is a stronghold of eastern brook trout in the United States, but even here they have disappeared from many lakes and ponds due to competition from non-native fish,” said Nat Gillespie, manager. National Fisheries Program Assistant for the Forest Service and President for the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture. “With climate change, warming waters and the expansion of non-native fish species, it is crucial to reclaim these historic brook trout ponds wherever possible to conserve this iconic fish.”

Ongoing efforts to protect and restore fish habitat in ponds and streams in national forests and grasslands are critical to the future of biodiversity. The 5 in 5 Project is just one example of how the Forest Service, state agencies, nonprofit partners, and communities are working together to ensure native fish are there for people to enjoy. future generations can benefit from it.

To learn more about how the Forest Service is working to protect and restore native fish habitat across the United States, visit the Forest Service Fisheries Program webpage.

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