Saturday, June 7, 2014

A coal-ming debacle, a future threat, and the Brook Trout

Just a few years into my residency in the Hazleton area, I partnered with an enduring friend to form what we nonchalantly called the Friends of the Nescopeck. We didn’t have a treasury or nonprofit status from the IRS, or even a snail-mail address. But we had a mission – to gather data that might ultimately lead to a cleanup plan for a big mistake of the past.
We collected water samples – weekly – from collection sites throughout the Nescopeck Creek watershed; ranging as far downstream as Nescopeck borough. On one memorable day, I got my first glance at the mouth of the Jeddo Mine Tunnel. It’s an engineering marvel, for sure, but the death knell for miles and miles of downstream waterways and their aquatic life.
We poked around quite a bit that day in Butler Township; admiring the relatively clean water of a beaver-created pond next to the outfall channel of the heavily polluted tunnel discharge waterway.
And then we rambled upstream – the Little Nescopeck Creek – just to get a look at the general quality of the riparian woods and the creek’s water.
Well, well, I recall saying. Below me, at a point where the creek is barely six feet from bank to bank, swam a real honest-to-gosh Brook Trout. Two decades later, the merger of Jeddo water with the creek Mother Nature created remains the end-point for trout in the Little Nescopeck.
The Brookie is the only trout that’s really, truly, native to much of the Applachian region, from Georgia north to Maine and on up into the coastal provinces of Canada.
And even now, after long-ago realization of what makes a creek, run or river right for this coldwater-loving fish, the future is tenuous for the Brook Trout.
The effects of acid mine drainage, while ugly in their own right, pale when considered alongside the wholesale loss of coldwater systems throughout the East.
“In collaboration with many conservation organizations, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed and released an ambitious strategy for responding to accelerating climate change and addressing its impact on critters like brook trout. The Service and joint venture are working on a climate change monitoring program, targeting 400 sites aimed at taking a closer look at how air and water temperatures impact brook trout.”
The single most important factor affecting brook trout is water temperature, which is why biologists are concerned about this species as climate change accelerates. Brook trout thrive in water temperatures of 65 degrees Fahrenheit or less. They will die after only a few hours in water temperatures of 75 degrees Fahrenheit.
Just as it is for migratory songbirds, a key to trout population survival is high-quality habitat.
The FWS again: “Fragmented populations, habitat loss, invasive species, degraded streams, longer droughts, more intense wet periods, and temperature changes have some of the best coldwater fisheries biologists joining forces to ensure these trout survive for the next generation of anglers.   
“We are not trying to prove what causes climate change one way or another,” says Mark Hudy, a coldwater fisheries biologist for the U.S. Forest Service based at James Madison University. “We are trying to determine what management actions we can take to make the trout more resilient to the changes we are seeing. Bottom line is that the current distribution of brook trout will change.”
Climate change’s unpredictability poses unique challenges. How to address changes in precipitation remains a concern, according to Doug Besler, a coldwater fisheries biologist for the North Carolina Wildlife Resources Commission.
“We might get the same amount of precipitation annually, but what if it comes in bunches at times of the year that aren’t considered normal?  That’s one of the many things we worry about because it’s very hard to plan for that kind of unpredictability,” Besler says.
Other questions remain unanswered.
“Some of these changes are going to affect these fish and their habitat in ways we cannot imagine today,” says Steve Moore, lead fisheries biologist for the National Park Service in the Smokies.  “What if the normal stream temperature goes from 62 degrees to 65 or 66 degrees?  We don’t know the answer to that one."
Many times while living in Conyngham, my Sheltie Kestrel and I stood near the Little Nescopeck where it flows past the edge of Whispering Willows Park in the borough. No trout in that water. But chattering Gray Squirrels nearby kept the dog’s attention.
Are we going to repeat the Jeddo Tunnel mistake again by altering our planet’s climate?
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