Few animals resonate with Pennsylvanians the way the brook trout does. It is our state fish. It is also an iconic image of the mountain streams of central and northern Pennsylvania that exemplifies the wild spirit of Appalachia. However, Pennsylvania’s once vibrant population of America’s southernmost Artic Char species is rapidly declining.
Once upon a time, brook trout were abundant in streams throughout the Commonwealth. Brook trout are only able to survive in the coldest and cleanest of streams and rivers, and as such their presence is used as an indicator of a watershed’s quality. Nowadays their population range has largely been reduced to small pockets within the state’s most remote and rugged areas. The reasons for this decline are plentiful.
- Acid Mine Drainage
Acid Mine Drainage or AMD, is defined as the overflow of acidic waters from abandoned mines (Websters Dictionary). AMD can originate from many mining practices, but in Pennsylvania AMD primarily comes from coal mining practices. AMD is Pennsylvania’s largest non-point water source pollutant. AMD from abandoned mines has negatively impacted over 3,000 miles of Pennsylvania streams, and is thus taking an enormous toll on the brook trout population. The remaining side-effects of over 100 years of rampant coal mining are the leading cause of brook trout decline.
- Habitat loss and land development
Just like any other animal species, habitat loss due to land development significantly impacts brook trout population. Unlike hardier warm-water species like smallmouth bass, trout need clean, cold water to survive. When the land along a trout stream is cleared for development or turned into a grazing pasture, the riparian buffer (a vegetative area along a stream that keeps the stream shaded and protects it from adjacent uses) is destroyed. Without the riparian buffer, the water warms much quicker in the summer months resulting in higher trout mortality rate. Additionally, without the riparian buffer in rural areas, grazing farm animals are allowed to roam through the stream thus creating further pollution and bacteria.
- Stocking of hatchery in streams where a wild brook population exists.
Many Pennsylvania anglers have become accustom to fishing for stocked trout during spring (and sometimes during the fall as well). Pennsylvania’s yearly trout opener is a time honored tradition for many keystone families, and a day that many people look forward to every year. I, for one, have been out fishing for stocked fish on opening day on many occasions with my father. Preserving the tradition and sport of trout fishing in Pennsylvania is very important, and I believe that the PFBC stocking program does a good job keeping those traditions alive. However, when streams that have a population of wild brook trout are stocked with their non-native cousins, the brook trout population gets hammered. The main reason is because more trout in the stream equals increased competition for food. And with the stocked fish typically being larger than the native brook trout, they will win that competition majority of the time.
For me, the thrill of finding and catching a native Pennsylvania brookie on a fly is something that I greatly enjoy and something that I hope future generations will enjoy as well. However, I fear that without significant change in the future, this iconic Pennsylvania species will be rendered to a fond memory of distant times past.