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** Archived Article - please check for current information. **

December 20, 2011

Coalition working to restore brook trout to their rightful place in mountain streams

When Dan Rankin, regional fisheries biologist with the S.C. Department of Natural Resources, looked at a map of existing brook trout streams along the Blue Ridge Escarpment, a large blank spot along the Jocassee Gorges section was pretty conspicuous.

"There is a big hole there," Rankin said, "where brook trout should be, but they’re not."

Rankin thinks that forest management practices of the early 1900s, when timber companies did not abide by Best Management Practices that are now in place to protect water and soil, contributed to the absence of brook trout in the region. But whatever the cause, Rankin and a coalition of government agencies and private conservation organizations are working to bring the Eastern brook trout back to the mountain streams that it historically inhabited in the Jocassee Gorges.

The Jocassee Gorges brook trout project began in 2009 when a $50,000 grant proposal was submitted to the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a diverse group of partners, including state fish and wildlife agencies, federal resources agencies, academic institutions and private-sector conservation organizations working to conserve Eastern brook trout and their habitats. The U.S. Forest Service received an additional $50,000 Partnership Grant, and both grants were matched by the S.C. Department of Natural Resources (DNR) and Duke Energy.

Duke Energy is a major partner in this work by providing funding to DNR through the Bad Creek Hydro Project Fisheries Memorandum of Understanding.

Another important partner is Trout Unlimited, which applied for and received a Trout Unlimited National Embrace-a-Stream Grant to support the brook trout project. Trout Unlimited funds have purchased many of the monitoring supplies, and Trout Unlimited also took the lead in developing an informational brochure about conserving brook trout in South Carolina as part of this project.

Primary objectives for the brook trout project are:

1) To conduct an assessment of Jocassee Gorges streams and set priorities for which ones were best suited for restoration of Southern Appalachian brook trout. The assessment phase included looking at stream habitat, water quality and what fish species already existed in streams that would be candidates for restoration.

2) Restoration phase, to include restoring brook trout in two Jocassee Gorges streams.

The assessment phase of the Jocassee Gorges brook trout project is nearly complete, after two years of looking at many factors in the streams, including water chemistry, water temperatures and the amount of sediment.

Restoration of two streams could begin in fall or winter of 2012.

This formula has already proven spectacularly successful with two Oconee County streams, King Creek and Crane Creek, both in the U.S. Forest Service’s Andrew Pickens District. Restoration in King Creek was completed in 2005, 2006 in Crane Creek, and both of those creeks now have healthy and sustainable brook trout populations.

Three fisheries technicians from DNR’s Freshwater Fisheries Section are the main drivers of the brook trout project. Amy Breedlove is the keeper of the data for the project and is conducting most of the analyses for habitat and temperature monitoring. Jon Davis and Bob Miller have traversed practically every inch of every stream—some of them incredibly rugged—in Jocassee Gorges during the assessment phase, expected to be complete in summer 2012.

One of the missing habitat elements in the Oconee County streams may also play an important role in restoring Jocassee Gorges streams, according to Rankin. Missing from the Oconee County streams was pool habitat, important places for brook trout to hide, rest and search for food. Another missing habitat element, apparently related to the lack of pool habitat, was large woody debris in the stream. Without large trees falling in the stream, the pool habitat that brook trout need was not being created. So what did fisheries’ biologists and technicians do? They strategically chain-sawed and dropped trees in the streams, many of them Eastern hemlocks, which were already succumbing to the hemlock woolly adelgid anyway.

Adding woody debris to the streams dramatically increased pool habitat in the Oconee County streams, and the brook trout that were reintroduced there have flourished. Rankin said they will likely try the same solution in Jocassee Gorges streams.

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