America’s native trout have declined dramatically during the last century thanks to a number of threats ranging from hatchery fish stocking to logging and mining to poorly designed roads and livestock grazing practices, says a new study from Trout Unlimited.
According to a the report titled, “State of the Trout,” these threats are greater than ever, and they make for an uncertain future for coldwater fish if steps are not taken to protect and restore habitat, reconnect tributaries to mainstem rivers and keep native trout populations viable for the benefit of anglers and the country’s riparian ecosystems.
The report notes that, of the nation’s 28 unique species and subspecies of trout and char, three are already extinct. Of the remaining 25 species, 13 occupy less than 25 percent of their native ranges. Trout across America are dealing with the cumulative effects of resource extraction, climate change and the introduction and persistence of non-native fish into native trout waters. But, according to the report, there is hope for trout and for those who fish for them all across the nation. The report lays out a roadmap for native trout recovery and persistence, but it will require a host of advocates playing vital protection and restoration roles for years to come.
“It’s daunting when you consider the scope of the threats facing coldwater fish in the United States,” said Chris Wood, TU’s president and CEO. “But if you step back and look at the work that TU and our partners are already doing all across the country, it’s encouraging to see progress and to know that, with help from volunteers, private industry, government agencies and elected officials, we can replicate that progress and keep trout in our waters.
“And that’s why this report isn’t just for anglers or for biologists,” Wood continued. “This is a report for all Americans, because trout require the cleanest and coldest water to survive—and we all need clean water.”
Like Wood, report author Jack Williams, TU’s senior scientist, believes all Americans have a stake in this report, and that it will require a collective effort to ensure a future for native trout in America.
“The reasons many populations of native trout are on the ropes is because of our growing human population and the increasing demand on water resources,” Williams said. “For eons, the great diversity of trout genetics and life histories coupled with their widespread distribution allowed them to thrive. The changes we’ve made to their habitat over time, just by pursuing our lifestyle, has had a huge impact on water quality, connectivity and trout habitat. We’ve also stocked non-native trout on top of native populations, to the point where even well-adapted native trout are overcome by repeated stockings.”
Williams notes that common-sense conservation measures in the years to come can help native trout recover. But, restoration needs to take place across entire watersheds and be sustained over decades.
For instance, in Maggie Creek in northwest Nevada, collaborative restoration has been underway since the late 1980s. TU’s work with ranchers, the Bureau of Land Management and mining companies have restored 2,000 acres of riparian habitat and today native Lahontan cutthroat trout have been completely restored in 23 miles of Maggie Creek and its tributaries. In Maine, where TU and its partners helped negotiate the removal of two dams and construction of fish passage on a third, more than 1,000 miles of the Penobscot River has been reopened to Atlantic salmon, striped bass, herring and shad. In the West, in states like Idaho and Colorado, sportsmen and women have mobilized and helped protect millions of acres of intact, functional habitat that is vital to trout and the waters in which they swim. Broad-scale restoration work on streams in the Driftless Area of the Midwest has translated into waters that once held only 200 fish per mile to holding 2,000 fish per mile.
TU’s public and private partners are key to the report’s findings. Without help from government, private entities and volunteers, trout truly do face an uncertain future.
“The health of America’s trout is directly connected to the health of our nation’s watersheds—watersheds that provide clean drinking water, drive economic growth and support recreational fishing opportunities for millions of people across the nation,” said U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Director Dan Ashe. “The ‘State of the Trout’ report provides a valuable overview of the health of these fisheries, helping Trout Unlimited, the Fish and Wildlife Service and our partners identify priority areas for conservation.”
Like Ashe, Neil Kornze, director of the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, believes in partnerships to ensure trout survive for coming generations to enjoy.
“Trout Unlimited’s new report details the many challenges facing our nation’s native trout, and offers some real, science-based solutions to ensure trout remain a part of the American landscape for generations to come,” Kornze said. “Their approach to protecting and restoring native trout populations supports the BLM’s fisheries programs and our landscape-scale approach to land management. The report is thoughtful and scientifically sound—it’s a valuable addition to ongoing efforts to restore our nation’s coldwater fisheries.”
U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell also noted that partnerships are vital to the long-term persistence of native trout in America.
“The Forest Service is fortunate to be able to leverage hundreds of thousands of dollars, along with help from TU, hundreds of volunteers, local communities, schools, and citizens to restore healthy trout habitat,” Tidwell said. “The Forest Service will stay a close partner with TU in trout and aquatic habitat protection and restoration across the U.S.”
The report, according to Doug Austen, executive director of the American Fisheries Society, offers a glimpse at just how important trout are to America’s waters.
Today’s report paints a troubling picture of the status of trout, but it also features the hope that the more than 9,000 members of AFS share: effective partnerships with scientists, government agencies, fisheries managers, conservation groups and landowners can achieve amazing recovery results for these imperiled fish,” Austen said.
And trout aren’t just a biological asset, either. Ben Bulis, the president and CEO of the American Fly Fishing Trade Association, notes that trout are vital to the industry his association represents.
“Trout are the foundation of the fly fishing world,” Bulis said. “Their health and the health of their habitat is vital to the bottom line of the growing fly fishing industry. This report not only lays out the challenges trout face, but it offers solutions and a common-sense approach to ensuring trout persist and thrive well into the future.”
In the end, Wood said, it’s really about hope and optimism.
“While the report’s findings are dire,” Wood said, “there are hundreds of examples where we’ve corrected past mistakes. Trout are incredibly adaptable and resilient—we just have to give them half a chance, and they’ll recover. That’s the message in this report—we can improve trout habitat, increase trout populations and make fishing better. But we need the support and the will to do it. Nobody is saying it will be easy.”
Read the report today at tu.org/stateofthetrout.
Photo by Joshua Duplechian