Brook Trout Face Climate Change Challenges

Brook Trout. Via Tommy Lawhorne.

Anglers are drawn to the streams of Appalachia for brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis). Colloquially known as brookies, brook char, mountain trout, and so on, the fish have a rapid lifespan, about three years on average, and reproduce in about a year. 

Adult brook trout measure between 6-13 inches and weigh 1-2 pounds. They have dark green backs that lighten down to white bellies. Yellow and red speckles mark their back and sides. They are daytime feeders, consuming insect larvae, small fish, and crayfish. In October and November, brookies travel to the headwaters of small streams to spawn where the females will cover their eggs in the loose gravel of the stream bed for protection. 

While perfectly suited for cool mountain streams (68°F or less), brook trout populations have struggled through centuries of mining, forest clear-cutting, and now climate change. In restored Appalachian streams, non-native rainbow and brown trout have often been introduced and stocked over brook trout due to  their tolerance of warmer waters. 

Todd Petty, chair of forestry and environmental conservation at Clemson University, sees climate change as a major challenge to restoring and conserving Appalachia’s brook trout. Before moving to Clemson, Petty worked at West Virginia University and conducted 20 years of research at Shavers Fork of the Cheat River, which Petty describes as an “iconic Appalachian system” and a “mythical place” with a robust brook trout fishery. 

As a spatial ecologist, Petty wanted to understand how brook trout lived, particularly how they moved through the ecosystem and the scale of that movement. Petty’s findings revealed that the Shavers Fork brook trout are a fluvial population, moving between rivers and streams. With this information, Petty and fellow researchers developed three key areas they believe brook trout restoration needs to focus on: acidification, dispersal barriers, and water temperature. 

While Petty supports restoration efforts, he emphasizes that restoration doesn’t always work.

“What we need to do is make sure every decision we make is through the lens of climate change and potential impacts of climate change,” Petty said. 

As Petty sees it, brook trout are not going to be restored to their historic levels—but that does not make restoration efforts any less important. Maintaining the current brook trout population should be the primary focus. 

In Appalachia, climate models show a wetter and warmer future. While flooding threatens human populations, brook trout populations are likely to be more resilient. 

“When people do an analysis of river temperatures, they show that it’s increasing, but it’s increasing in the winter…The summer temperatures are not. They’re flat. And so when we think about limits on brook trout in cold water systems, it’s really that summertime high temperature that is the biggest concern and we’re just not seeing that because it’s wetter,” Petty explained. 

After 20 years dedicated to brook trout, Petty is pursuing new research interests in carbon and forests. Others in the region, however, are still focused on brook trout restoration.   

Brook Trout. Via Tommy Lawhorne.

The Shenandoah Valley chapter of Trout Unlimited (SVTU) works to conserve cold water fisheries and promote recreational fishing. SVTU President Tommy Lawhorne owns South River Fly Shop in Waynesboro, Virginia. Besides selling fishing tackle, his shop offers full service guiding and instruction. 

“There are only a few streams I take clients to if they are looking for a native brook trout experience,” Lawhorne said. 

Brook trout are smaller and harder to get to than the local stocked and wild rainbow and brown trout. Out of the 20 or 30 trips a month Lawhorne’s shop guides, only a couple are for brook trout. For those trips, they have to trek to streams on protected lands where brook trout still live. 

Most of SVTU’s work is on the South River, removing dams and restoring habitats for the benefit of all coldwater species. Although Lawhorne considers the river a better fishery than it was 10 years ago, the industrial history of the area left its mark. Lawhorne thinks it’s unlikely that the river will ever again have a sustainable brook trout population. 

SVTU represents one of Trout Unlimited’s  387 national chapters. Founded in 1959, TU has expanded beyond its Michigan origins to support native and wild trout and salmon conservation across the country. As a national organization, TU helps communities start and complete conservation projects, including brook trout restoration efforts. 

In West Virginia, for example, TU offers a wide array of services from work crews to funding assistance. They also collaborate with partners like the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Forest Service.

“Everything we do on land is reflected in the health of our waters, so you can’t really separate the community engagement from the conservation,” Keith Curley, vice president for eastern conservation at TU, said. There is enthusiasm about brook trout restoration in Appalachia, because, as Curley explains, “Brook trout has cultural value.” 

Looking to the future, Curley worries about climate change and winter weather patterns that might disrupt restoration efforts. 

Because brook trout spawn in the fall, an increase in the frequency of winter storms threatens to wipe out year classes. Todd Petty’s research at WVU indicates that brook trout are resilient to flooding, but if year classes are repeatedly wiped out, population levels in these areas could be impacted negatively in the long term. 

Time, and more research, will reveal if that is true. What is clear, however, is that restoration efforts will continue for the foreseeable future. Brook trout may never reach their historic levels, but they are still swimming wild through the coldwater streams and rivers of Appalachia. Brook trout populations of the past survived damaging human activities like habitat fragmentation and pollution. Between their resiliency and cultural and recreational value, brook trout stand a fighting chance to weather the ongoing and impending threats of climate change. 

Annie Chester is a writer and co-founder of expatalachians. She writes about the environment and culture in Appalachia and abroad.

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