Brook Trout in Rhode Island

A History and Discussion of Current Conditions

Brook Trout are the only native trout, char, or salmon presently found in R.I. waters. In the recently completed Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management (RIDEM) statewide fin-fish survey, they were found in 155 locations in nine out of ten watersheds. These populations are designated as native in this survey. They were called ‘wild’ in the 1973 Pawcatuck Watershed Survey, also carried out by RIDEM. These terms indicate that these populations are wild and self- replicating.

It is understood that brook trout originated in the sea and entered North American rivers during the Pleistocene era, approximately two million years ago. During this long period they survived numerous ice ages by retreating into the sea and into inland refuges as ice advanced. When conditions allowed, they returned to inland waterways where they existed as segregated populations and adapted to widely differing environments. This process occurred many times, which has resulted in a complex genetic makeup, enabling these fish to be highly adaptable. They live in coastal streams and rivers where they migrate between fresh and salt water. They can live in large river systems, lakes and ponds, and the tiniest of headwater streams.

During colonial times logging, agriculture, and dam erection severely degraded habitat and populations of brook trout. The industrial era and the associated grazing of sheep aggravated their decline. After the Civil War, 95% of RI was without forest cover. Numerous dams blocked major rivers and headwaters and all forms of native life suffered severe population declines. The Blackstone River was considered the most polluted river in America!

In response, in 1870, the federal government created the National Commissioners of Inland Fisheries to assist states in replenishing lost fish stocks through the newly developed art of artificial propagation. In 1871, R.I. formed the R.I. Commissioners of Inland Fisheries and began rearing and stocking brook trout into barren watersheds throughout the state. In 1920, this volunteer group issued their annual report, which included an overview of their efforts. The report states that after fifty years of stocking as many as 140,000 brook trout annually there was no evidence that they had created a self-replicating population anywhere in R.I. waters. They blamed the condition of our watersheds. The report states that all stocked fish were either caught or else were dead by season’s end in mid July. Our waterways, including the Blackstone, Pawtuxet, and Pawcatuck are described as becoming disconnected pools of stagnant and polluted water in which no fish could survive.

1920 was a turning point. The textile industry moved south, local sheep production plummeted, and small farms failed. The second growth forest, which we now inhabit, began to recover and shade our watersheds. Over time, self- replicating populations of brook trout could be found in headwater and coastal streams. What could be the source of these returning populations? Are these fish the result of hatchery stock or are they derived from surviving wild stock?

The 1973 RIDEM Survey of the Pawcatuck River Watershed is a comprehensive and informative study. Brook Trout, deemed wild were found in 37 tributary streams and in the upper Wood River. None were found in the Pawcatuck, which was still an industrial sewer at that time. A few of the smaller un-named streams in which brook trout were found had never been stocked. The report also contains the result of a 10-year long creel survey, which found that no brook trout of hatchery origin were reported caught later than six weeks after stocking during optimal springtime conditions. Brook trout stocked during the summer did not reappear and were presumed to die from increased summer temperatures. This survey was designed to place R.I.’s fisheries management on a scientific basis, and its findings still drive today’s management. It found that hatchery fish could not ‘winter over’ in R.I.’s waters unless they could migrate to the sea.

Hatchery fish are raised in waters (pens) of high PH, fed at the optimal level to insure the most efficient growth. They are tightly crowded; competition for available food is inevitable. They are stocked at a minimum of two years of age. It is a size (and quantity) far exceeding what our streams can naturally support. They suffer the shock of being introduced into acidic water and into a wild environment with which they have no experience. As the creel survey indicated, they are either caught or dead from starvation within six weeks. Normally fall spawners these fish have no opportunity to reproduce. Hatchery production does not enable these farmed fish to withstand a harsh wild setting. The thought that hatchery brook trout could be the source of wild populations isn’t even considered as a possibility in the 1973 survey. No offspring of hatchery-originated brook, brown, or rainbow trout were found in the latest RIDEM survey.

The adaptability of our wild brook trout enables them to survive in tiny spring-fed rivulets as small fish, developing early reproductive capacity in their second year of life. As conditions in our watersheds improved, it appears that these fish moved downstream to repopulate available stream-reaches, accounting for today’s wild populations. Recent DNA studies in other states have produced evidence leading to the acceptance of this idea.

What is the current condition of R.I.’s wild self-replicating brook trout populations? As stated earlier, the latest RI DEM survey found them in 9 out of 10 watersheds in 155 locations. While it is obvious that they are found in many locations, their condition is tenuous. Brook trout are listed as a GNC species {greatly in need of conservation} in RIDEM’s 2005 Comprehensive Wildlife Survey.

In 2006, federal legislation created and funded the Native Fish Habitat Action Plan, designed to fund actions by regional collaborations of state agencies, conservation groups, and federal agencies to mitigate the effects of climate change through habitat improvements. In our region, beginning in 2006, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture (EBTJV) funded actions to improve conditions for BT. RI was the only state that did not participate. From 2006 until 2012, the EBTJV awarded 16.4 million dollars to participating states that have successfully completed many BT conservation efforts. RI has only now, as of 2013, decided to take part. Our state has, thus, delayed BT conservation efforts by at least these seven years. The US Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) has designated brook trout as the “sentinel” species of concern on the east coast in the face of climate change. Climate change is a serious threat to BT, but it is not the only one.

When hatchery fish are stocked into streams containing wild brook trout their effect is extremely damaging to the native populations and all other life forms found there. The science backing up this statement has been known for 50 years. Many state fisheries’ management plans have been altered to reflect this truth. RI has accepted funding from two federal sources, the EBTJV and the Wildlife Action Plan. The goal of both funding sources is to further conservation efforts on behalf of threatened species and yet, RIDEM continues to stock hatchery fish over vulnerable populations of wild brook trout. For example, in October of 2013, many large non-native rainbow trout were stocked into the upper Wood River just at the beginning of brook trout spawning season. In contrast, other states have gone so far as to close stream sections where wild trout are known to spawn.

The Wood River watershed has been recognized by the EBTJV as the most likely in Rhode Island to respond favorably to brook trout conservation efforts. But RIDEM, calling the Wood River the gem of its stocking program, continues to stock this river under a “put-and-take” management plan. This despite studies showing that this practice is harmful to wild fish. RIDEM’s trout management plan favors license sales and maintenance of the status quo over native fish conservation. This approach is outdated, hastens the destruction of our brook trout, and is at odds with the goals of the agency’s federal funders. And all of this in contradiction of RIDEM’s assertion that it is the steward of wildlife in the state of Rhode Island.

Trout Unlimited (TU), a national conservation group, has recently acknowledged these concerns and issued a directive to local chapters prohibiting their endorsement of or participation in the stocking of hatchery fish where wild, native trout are found. Local Rhode Island Chapter TU 225 has resisted compliance with this directive and continues to support RIDEM practices.

Thus, at this time the task of advocating for the conservation, preservation, and restoration of wild brook trout populations is left to concerned citizens.