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Mike Slattery holding up a fish.

“Meat fisherman” for conservation

Chesapeake Bay coordinator Mike Slattery holds a brook trout from Savage

Chesapeake Bay coordinator Mike Slattery holds a brook trout from Savage River in Maryland, which drains to the Bay. Credit: Alan Klotz, Maryland DNR.

“Meat fisherman” – it’s a label I once wore with unabashed pride. My Dad’s childhood friend called me that after the second day fishing Hudson Brook for native brookies near North Adams, Mass. He and my Dad had fished this brook throughout their lifetimes, hunting and fishing every chance they could.

The creel limit was 12 fish, equal in number to the years I’d lived by 1976. I had no sense of etiquette as I hard-charged from boulder to boulder flipping worms into crystal pools with my ultra-light and ripping fish after fish from water.

But times change, and people change.

Now, I wouldn’t dream of catching, killing and eating 12 brook trout a day. They’re in trouble, and in dire need of conservation attention.

Today, as Chesapeake Bay coordinator for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, I support the work of 27 Service offices in the 64,000-square-mile Chesapeake watershed.

We work together and with partners to integrate work priorities and to develop and support a unified habitat conservation framework.

We think of species like brook trout, blue crabs, woodcock, black ducks, striped bass and shad as indicators of the health and viability of Chesapeake landscapes and of the fish and wildlife populations in those landscapes.

Brook trout
“Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were the maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.”

– Cormac McCarthy, The Road

These are species people care about, and they can represent the needs of other important species that depend upon similar conditions and processes. By targeting our actions to conserve habitat for these species, and by tracking the health and status of them, we hope to deduce the status of other species that are important to people as well.

The range of the Eastern brook trout stretches from the southern Appalachians into Canada. A century of decline has resulted in lost economic revenues and lost recreational fishing opportunities, along with the loss of other ecological health and functions in cold, clear, fast-flowing headwater streams. Without help, fishery managers agree that within 20 years, brook trout numbers might only support a relic fishery, the value of which may be rich in nostalgia, but poor economically. It’s even thought that brookies are at risk of qualifying for “threatened” status regionally in the rivers and streams feeding the Chesapeake in 30-40 years.

So connecting Chesapeake headwater communities and the people who live in them to the work of Chesapeake Bay Program agencies, through a shared commitment to brook trout conservation, seems an obvious choice.

Mike Slattery holding fish.

Chesapeake Bay coordinator Mike Slattery holds up a striped bass with celebrity biologist Jeff Corwin while fishing near the Bay’s Poplar Island. Credit: Mike Deckelbaum, Maryland DNR.

My beginnings as an outdoorsman fishing Hudson Brook were immature and a little undignified by many conservationists’ standards today. Heck, I was a kid. But I was in the company of men offering to share a common bond – sacraments of the Earth, of sporting traditions, and of conservation honor-bound.

Experiences like that helped shape lifelong recreation and lifestyle choices, my academic path, and my career.

I do what I do so my children and grandchildren may have opportunities, as I have, to experience wild things and wild places in very personal and individual ways, to forge personal and individual connections to the natural world, and to be physically, emotionally and spiritually enriched and rejuvenated by it.

One day, I hope to be judged as having been useful, having been helpful to my colleagues and partners in conservation, and having made a lasting contribution to our conservation mission. I’d take even greater pride in a label like that.