A new report shows brook trout populations have been eliminated or greatly reduced throughout more than 80 percent of their historical habitat in Georgia and South Carolina, the southern fringe of Eastern brook trout habitat.
These results reflect the condition of brook trout across their entire Eastern range, according to an assessment released recently by Trout Unlimited and a coalition of state and federal agencies, including the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR).
“Brook trout are the canary in the coal mine when it comes to water quality,” said Gary Berti, Trout Unlimited’s Eastern Brook Trout Campaign coordinator. “The presence of brook trout in a watershed indicates that water quality is excellent. Declining brook trout populations can provide an early warning that the health of an entire stream, lake or river is at risk.”
The report, “Eastern Brook Trout: Status and Threats,” is the first comprehensive assessment of the status of brook trout in the Eastern United States. These beautiful fish historically thrived in rivers and streams stretching from Maine to Georgia, but land use pressures have relegated the remaining isolated populations to the headwaters of high elevation streams.
Brook trout populations in South Carolina and Georgia now exclusively occur in high elevation headwater streams, isolated from other populations within the same river system. Brook trout have been eliminated from 55 percent of their historic habitat in the two states, and populations are greatly reduced in another 25 percent of habitat that formerly supported brook trout. Brook trout are a state listed “special concern” species in South Carolina.
“While these results are sobering, we are already pursuing many opportunities for conservation of remaining high-quality habitat as well as restoration of impaired streams,” said Dan Rankin, DNR Upstate regional fisheries biologist. “In recent years, we have worked with conservation partners to protect a half dozen wild brook trout streams through habitat easements and/or acquisitions.”
“Brookies are quick to respond to habitat improvements,” said Dave Van Lear, the brook trout coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s South Carolina Council and retired Clemson University forestry professor. “We have already seen the results of our work with state and federal partners. By scaling up these programs throughout the state and region, we will see wild brook trout returning to our streams. And that’s great news for all of us who love to fish locally with our families and friends.”
In August 2005, DNR initiated a cooperative project with the U.S. Forest Service, Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Trout Unlimited, Clemson University and the South Carolina Wildlife Federation to restore three miles of wild brook trout habitat. Another restoration project is planned for 2006.
South Carolina’s primary goal is to restore brook trout streams where population declines have been documented in recent years. Restoration will be carefully planned to incorporate maintaining healthy populations of brook trout, all the while continuing to place a high priority on maintaining healthy wild brown and rainbow trout fisheries as well.
This assessment represents the first stage of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture’s collaborative efforts to restore brook trout habitat. The Joint Venture was initiated in 2002 as a pilot program of the National Fish Habitat Initiative. Participants include fish and wildlife agencies from 17 states, federal partners, conservation organizations and academic institutions. The results of this assessment will be used to develop state-by-state strategies for brook trout conservation and recovery.The full report and state-specific data and maps are available at www.brookie.org. Hard copies are available at the Clemson DNR office at 153 Hopewell Road, at Clemson University’s Cherry Farm.