Ten months after Irene, fish stocks appear strong

ADDISON COUNTY — It’s summertime, and that means more locals are heading out to local streams and waterways for recreation and fishing.
Jesse Haller, a fishing guide for Green Mountain Adventures and president of the New Haven River Anglers, said so far many of those anglers have been happy at the end of the day.
But Haller said despite fishermen’s good fortune it’s still too early to tell if fish populations fared well in the wake of Tropical Storm Irene — that, he said, won’t be clear until state and federal agencies do surveys later in the summer.
“We’ve had a good early season, but that doesn’t give us a huge indication of how the population will handle the hot months,” he said.
Chet McKenzie, a fisheries biologist for the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, said annual fish population surveys begin in August, so the state won’t have any official numbers on fish populations until then.
But it’s clear, he said, that larger brook trout, an indicator species (one that offers a picture of a habitat’s health as a whole) weathered the storm and have been active in this year’s warm spring waters.
“This has been one of the best spring fisheries,” said McKenzie. “There’s a phenomenal amount of wild trout.”
Eric Palmer, director of fisheries at the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife, said he’s heard similar reports.
The question, he said, will be how many of the younger fish weathered Irene. That will be clearer once his agency begins to survey the rivers.
And while it’s not unusual for fish populations to decline after a major flood event, Palmer said, they tend to bounce back within just a couple of years.
“Flooding is a natural event, and fish have evolved over hundreds of years to handle it,” said Palmer.
A department report by fisheries biologist Rich Kirn reports that wild trout populations in four waterways around the state decreased between 33 and 58 percent from before Irene to after. But he also cites past fish population measurements from around the state during 1998 and 2007 flooding. In each measurement, fish populations in the particular stretch of waterway measured rebounded to pre-flood levels within two years.
While fish populations tend to bounce back from normal results of flooding, however, Palmer said when humans alter a riverbed after a flood, like some did following Tropical Storm Irene, the results can be completely different.
“If you move into a new house but you’ve got all your new furniture, you have to figure out where to put your stuff, but your stuff is still there,” said Palmer. “The flood moves boulders and sticks around and moves pools downstream. The habitat that you need to live is still there, just relocated.”
When humans move in to remove gravel and debris and change the river channel, he said, the wildlife populations take notice.
“If someone bulldozes your house, it’s not that your stuff is rearranged, it’s that it’s gone,” he said.
This has been very clear to Haller, who said he’s seen lower catch levels in areas of streams that were altered immediately after Irene. In those places, he said, there’s very little habitat or shelter, which is important for fish survival, especially as the waters heat up during the summer months.
McKenzie expects to do consulting work this summer with various towns, including East Middlebury, as they work to reconstruct a more natural habitat in those rivers.
Left untouched, Palmer said those habitats would recreate themselves over time. The boulders will be pushed downstream again, sticks and debris will move into place and begin to shelter aquatic creatures again, and fish will return. But that’s not a quick process.
“It can take a long time for that to come back to a river, and until that point, the river isn’t suitable for most types of fish,” said Palmer.
Wild fish populations may be running high, but some of the stocking programs around the state have not fared so well.
Each spring the state stocks waterways with various types of fish, predominantly trout. Palmer said most stocking in the state is in streams and lakes for recreational purposes, in areas that do not otherwise support large fish populations. But the state also has a number of conservation programs encouraging populations to take hold and reproduce independently.
Palmer said though the department focus has shifted from stocking toward habitat management and conservation, the fish stocking program has been in place since Vermonters noticed a decline in fish populations during the 1800s. To preserve populations and reverse over-fishing and damage from habitat loss, the state set up a fisheries agency in charge of stocking.
Last August’s flooding hit certain fish hatcheries in the state hard — including the Roxbury Hatchery, where many of the brook trout used to stock Addison County waterways are grown.
Because of reduced fish supply, McKenzie said his office had to lower the number of fish it recommended for stocking in most stretches of rivers throughout Addison County, and it did not stock in some areas that were heavily damaged by post-Irene river work.
Palmer said the damage to the 100-year-old Roxbury Fish Hatchery was so significant and the hatchery was so old that the state decided to start fresh and build a state-of-the-art facility. Because brook trout are raised for two years before they’re put into streams, the loss of a major state hatchery cut fish stocking volume this year.
Until the Roxbury hatchery can begin turning out its own fish, said Palmer, the other hatcheries in the state will be operating at capacity.
And it wasn’t just state hatcheries that were destroyed in the flooding: The White River National Fish Hatchery, a federal hatchery, was also devastated in the late-summer flooding.
Dan McKinley, a fisheries biologist for the United States Forest Service, said hatchery damage led to a reduction in federal stocking programs in Vermont this year. Hardest hit was the Atlantic salmon stocking program, which focuses on the West and Connecticut River watersheds in Vermont in an attempt to restore salmon populations to their historic breeding grounds.
Each spring local forest service staff do stocking work in the White River and several of its branches in Granville, Hancock and Rochester.
“I would say that we stocked maybe 10 percent of what we usually do,” said McKinley.
The Atlantic salmon program is a collaboration between many state and federal agencies that has worked in four New England states to repopulate the species since 1970, after it was nearly wiped out in the mid-20th century. The hope is that the program will bolster the population enough that young salmon will head out to the ocean, then return to their inland breeding grounds to reproduce.
“Our goal is to maintain habitat in the natural forest that supports wildlife,” said McKinley. “We’d rather not have to stock anything. We’d rather see natural spawning.”
In 2010, McKinley said two adult salmon returned to Bingo Brook in Rochester, the first in the upper White River since the 1960s. Biologists then saw no indication that the salmon spawned.
But stocking levels this year were much lower — some of the fish came from Roxbury, some from Massachusetts, and supplies were low all around.
Even once the White River Hatchery is repaired, said McKinley, it will be reassigned to other fish programs and will not continue raising salmon.
“We’re going to be challenged to find ways to raise salmon for stocking after that,” said McKinley.
McKinley said now the future of the entire Atlantic salmon stocking program is in doubt. This month, agencies from Vermont, Connecticut, New Hampshire and Massachussetts will be meeting to discuss the program and how much longer they can continue to support it.
“We’ll keep trying if we have the resources to do it,” said McKinley.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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