Science in the stream

Let’s say your phone rings, and the person on the line offers you full access to their property to conduct a stream habitat restoration project to benefit Eastern brook trout, an iconic, cold-water dependent species that’s starting to feel the heat from climate change.

You can plant trees to provide shade, change the slope of the bank to reduce erosion, and even pull out a dilapidated old culvert that’s obstructing flow. Need to truck in heavy machinery to get the job done? Make yourself at home. They’ll even bring you coffee and donuts every morning to help you start your day.

Say no more! I’d bite.


Eastern brook trout. Credit Robert S. Michelson.

Fortunately, Sandy Davis would be a little more discerning. As a fish and wildlife biologist for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Chesapeake Bay Field Office, she knows there are a number of different variables to consider when selecting a restoration project, and that it takes time to parse them out at a potential site.

So in the past when Davis would get a call like that, she would start by rounding up all the background information she could on the site, from ownership records to land-use history to species population data.

Then she would round up a camera, a tape measure and a survey rod and head for the door.

“They might say there are brook trout present, but we always need to go and see for ourselves,” she explained.

Now thanks to a new online decision support tool, Davis can save valuable time — and miles.

“Before we even get to that step, we can do a quick query to figure out if a project is worth considering without leaving the office,” she said.

Developed by environmental consulting firm Downstream Strategies with support from the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative (LCC), the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and other partners, the Fish Habitat Decision Support Tool enables users to establish and rank conservation priorities, predict how species like brook trout will fare under various management scenarios, and evaluate long-term conservation benefits in the face of climate change.

The tool can help in targeting aquatic resources from the Midwest to the Atlantic coast — nearly half of the continental United States. In the Northeast, it has been developed for brook trout in the Chesapeake Bay watershed, river herring and other anadromous fish in Atlantic coastal rivers, and winter flounder in Long Island Sound and Narragansett Bay.

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“We have always used the best available science to target where we work, but this tool puts all of the information we need right at our fingertips so we can make decisions quickly and strategically,” said Davis.

Information that used to require legwork, and field work: brook trout presence/absence data collected in the field, projections about how development and climate change will affect conditions at the site in the future, and the locations of any relevant activities that might be happening nearby. You know, like sites of other restoration projects, large population centers, leaking acid mines…

“Say we are considering a project in a small stream where we know brook trout are present, but the model shows us that there’s is no way we can restore the surrounding watershed enough to support a connected, sustainable brook trout population because of other factors,” said Davis. That project probably won’t make the cut.

That means rather than take on a project that will benefit a handful of brook trout today, they can use the tool to identify those with the potential to benefit the entire species well into the future.

“Ultimately our goal is to create populations that will be self sufficient,” said Davis. “This technology helps us pick projects that will have the greatest long-term impact by targeting areas for restoration projects that will increase connectivity between separate populations.”

The free online mapping tool also helps them communicate with members of the public (like me) about why some restoration sites are better than others — donuts or no donuts.

“You might need a science background to understand the nuts and bolts of the tool, but you don’t need a degree in fisheries to see the connections on a map,” said Davis. “We can show people visually that if we improve a certain area, we predict others areas will change for the better, too,” she said, adding that good conditions for brook trout mean good conditions for associated species as well — including people. “The added benefits are clean water, less erosion, and more attractive streams for everyone.”

To access the Fish Habitat Decision Support Tool, visit

To learn how to use it, tune into a free webinar hosted by the North Atlantic LCC on Wednesday, March 9, from 1-2 p.m. (EST):


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