In old-time cowboy movies, the good guy always wore a white hat and his nemesis carried a black fedora.
The same goes with the colors green and red.
Green on a map signifies forested land. Red, though, means trouble.
Trout Unlimited’s map of Pennsylvania’s wild brook trout populations is mostly red. Where not colored that shade, the map is gray, indicating extirpation of the fish. You’ve gotta look hard to find any green on the map. In fact, only 16 sub-watersheds in our state now support healthy, intact wild brook trout populations, according to TU.
(Disclosure: I’m a member of Trout Unlimited).
“Brook trout are the only trout native to much of the eastern United States,” the conservation organization notes in the introduction to the seminal “Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats” report it issued this spring.
What’s more, the species, Salvelinus fontinalis, is Pennsylvania’s state fish.
We’re not taking care of this species.
And those we’ve placed in charge of our fisheries often seem more focused on running hatcheries since stocking mongrels into put-and-take waters keeps the license revenue flowing.
And the Fish and Boat Commission gets its operating budget dollars from license and stamp sales.
“Arguably the most beautiful freshwater fish, brook trout survive in only the coldest and cleanest water. In fact, brook trout serve as indicators of the health of watersheds they inhabit. Strong wild brook trout populations demonstrate that a stream or river ecosystem is healthy and that water quality is excellent,” TU’s report states.
Given the map’s largely red coloration, it’s not hard to come to the realization that most Pennsylvania trout streams are suffering ills.
And those are of human making:
o Removal of streamside vegetation.
o Increasing sedimentation from developed lands.
o Nutrient runoff.
o Pollution from roads, highways, parking lots.
o Stocking hatchery fish on top of wild trout.
While development-damaged streams can be rehabilitated through tough, hands-on labor, arguably the best way to protect healthy wild brook trout populations is to leave the fish alone and protect a stream’s surrounding countryside.
No one seems to know just how many times – and where – hatchery-raised fish have been planted in Pennsylvania.
“It would take a lot more time than I have to list the many streams that the PFBC stocks that hold wild brook trout populations,” TU’s Ken Undercoffer told me.
“This would entail going through the stocking schedule and comparing it with the list of trout streams with natural reproduction.”
What’s so great about wild trout?
Eric Palmer, the state of Vermont’s director of fisheries, summarizes the uniqueness of wild fish on the Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department’s Web site:
When you catch a wild fish “you have living proof that the water they came from has suitable habitat for all of the life-stages of that species. It is like holding an intact ecosystem in your hand.”
What does stocking hatchery mongrels do to wild fish?
Undercoffer: The negative effects are many and have been demonstrated by numerous studies including those by the Fish and Boat Commission.
o Stocking encourages overharvesting.
o Mongrels compete with wild trout for scant resources in infertile freestone streams, which are the last refuge for wild brookies in the state.
o Interbreeding between mongrel and wild fish weakens the wild strain, making them less capable of surviving in the wild.
o Hatchery trout can carry diseases into wild brook trout populations.
Undercoffer again: “I fish many streams taken off the stocking list during the early stages of Operation Future in the early 1980s. They have all improved immensely since stocking was terminated. To ignore the effects of stocking over native brook trout populations is absurd.”
Bob Bachman, a former fisheries supervisor in Maryland, traveled to Vermont to testify at a recent meeting concerning a proposal to stock hatchery fish into that state’s most fabled trout stream, the Battenkill.
Bachman has studied wild trout for years, once spending countless hours perched in a lookout tower over Pennsylvania’s Spruce Creek (arguably the most famous trout stream in our state).
Hatchery trout dumped into waters like the Battenkill “run around like a motorcycle gang making trouble wherever they go,” Bachman said.
“Bachman had film footage that echoed his observations,” columnist Dave Mance III wrote in the Bennington, Vt., Banner.
“Whereas the wild trout he filmed were lithe, calm creatures who spent their days in the same spot, expending as little energy as possible, feeding robotically off the current’s figurative conveyor belt, the hatchery trout he showed were spastic, clumsy and without any clue as to the stream’s generations old hierarchy.”
Bachman’s footage showed just how inferior hatchery mongrels are to the real McCoy. They had ratty tails. One was missing an eyeball. “They came off as less-fish than-human-engineered pieces of meat which, if fact, is their design . . . Bachman’s data showed that most of the hatchery trout in his study were dead within three months. None survived the winter.
“The disturbing data, from his perspective, is that 12 percent of wild trout in the study area also died after he introduced hatchery fish; a fact directly attributable, in his opinion, to increased stress.”
“I don’t see any way you can put hatchery trout into a wild trout stream without doing a great deal of harm. Period,” Bachman told Vermont TU members.
On an aesthetic level, stocking hatchery trout into a wild trout stream ends up changing the stream’s very character, killing its wildness and placing it into another category, that of a tamed waterway.
Fish and Boat’s “rationale for stocking over wild trout is that anglers, sportsmen’s clubs and local businesses demand it,” Undercoffer told me. “According to the PFBC, stocking was resumed in Young Woman’s Creek and Cross Fork (both have substantial native brook trout and wild brown trout populations) in order to satisfy social demands.
“I don’t know if the PFBC has ever taken specific steps, like buying land to protect a wild brookie stream.”
Ironically, depending on one’s perspective, the Pennsylvania Game Commission owns far more stream mileage with wild brook trout populations than does the PFBC, “which must be telling us something,” Undercoffer says.
Some follow-on thoughts:
Pennsylvania has plenty of put-and-take water suitable for stocking.
Hatcheries, including Pennsylvania’s, produce effluent, a pollutant.
Fish and Boat is supposed to manage the state’s fisheries on behalf of all of its citizens, not just those who buy licenses.
Giving the agency general tax revenue, like a small percentage of the state’s sales tax, is not only appropriate but of paramount importance if we are to save even the best remaining wild brook trout populations.
Removing the connection between growing hatchery mongrels and selling licenses would be a positive step.
“What we need are more wild trout in more wild rivers,” the New York Times’s editorial page stated in June.
Catching a wild fish, then releasing it back into its home water, is an experience unlike any other in angling.
Plucking a hatchery-raised fish that grew up in a concrete tank on a diet of trout pellets is akin to handling a wan spirit.