Brook Trout, Acid Rain, and Some Good News


Posted: 02 Dec 2011 11:08 AM PST


A recent study showed that the number of Virginia streams that could support brook trout has increased over the past decade.

photo by Simon Chu

When it comes to brook trout, any good news is welcome news. The brook trout is the state fish here in Virginia, and anglers in my neck of the woods have a deep and abiding reverence for Salvelinus fontinalis. But it is not just the sport that sends many of us into the high mountain streams or up some obscure blue line on a map.

Since 1987, the University of Virginia, Trout Unlimited, and a number of state and federal agencies have been tracking water quality and related ecological conditions in Virginia’s native trout streams. The key concern at the time of the initial survey was the impact of acid rain on the mountain headwater streams that supported reproducing brook trout.

The Virginia Trout Stream Sensitivity Study, as it is known, has conducted three surveys—the first in 1987, a second in 2000, and the most recent one was completed in 2010. In each survey, volunteers gave up some prime fishing time to spend a day collecting samples from the streams they treasure.

In 2010, 165 volunteers, mostly TU members, sampled 384 streams in addition to 66 streams that are also sampled on a quarterly basis. The survey covers nearly 80 percent of the mountain streams with reproducing brook trout.

Results of the 2010 survey are encouraging, showing that water quality has clearly improved since the last survey in 2000.


The above map shows the locations of 458 sampling sites on brook trout streams that
were sampled during the VTSSS 2010 decadal survey. The sites include 73 sites that
are sampled routinely, either quarterly or weekly, and 385 regional survey sites.

Map courtesy VTSSSe

Janet Miller, a grad student at U.Va. did the analysis that showed that 77 percent of the streams sampled were suitable for brook-trout reproduction. In 2000 only 56 percent of those streams were suitable for reproduction.

“This is good news and real evidence for the value of our national investment in improving air quality,” said Rick Webb, a U.Va. environmental scientist and coordinator of the VTSSS. “At the same time, there is more to be done, and many Virginia brook trout streams may never fully recover.”

Webb points to the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 as an example of that investment in air quality improvement. Sulfur dioxide emissions from coal-fired power plants dropped by 64 percent between 1990 and 2009.

Having participated in the 2000 survey, I know first-hand the logistic requirements needed to pull these surveys off. The fact is without folks willing to forego some fishing time and dedicate some sweat to science this information and the good news it brings might still be unknown.

“It’s a cause for hope that so many people share a determination to protect and preserve our brook trout streams and the natural world they represent,” said Webb. “The remarkable volunteer contribution to the trout stream surveys over more than two decades is a real testament to this determination.”

Plans are in the works to fund these survey’s on a long term basis. TU and U.Va. are working to raise funds for an endowment to support graduate-level research.

Tom Sadler is a conservation consultant and advocate, fly fisherman, outdoor writer, and American Fly Fishing Trade Association board member. He runs the Middle River Group, LLC and blogs at Dispatches from the Middle River


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