Tag Archives: maine department of inland fisheries and wildlife

Saving an ancient fish in modern times

This story was originally published on our new Medium blog platform

 

Surrounded by vast northern Maine wilderness, Big Reed Pond sits peacefully on a mountaintop. A single cabin hides between the conifers that line its banks. The nearest town is 48 miles away.

Cabin owners Igor and Karen Sikorsky operate Bradford Camps, a guiding company that flies anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts to prime, remote fishing spots via their Cessna 172 floatplane.

Around the time that the Sikorskys took over the camp, something started to go very wrong at Big Reed.

“When we took over in ’96, almost everyone went to Big Reed Pond to go fishing — it was so good,” Igor Sikorsky said. “By 1998, two years later, nobody went there because whenever you went there you never caught a fish.”

It was more than just not catching fish. The fish were disappearing.

The Sikorsky’s float plane gliding over Big Reed Pond in the fall. Credit: Maine DIFW

One in particular: the Arctic charr, a fish found in just one state in the Lower 48 — Maine.

Though not quite dinosaurs, charr, also known as blueback trout, were the first fish species to colonize Maine waters when the glaciers receded over present-day North America. They now exist in only 14 lakes and ponds in the state.

Big Reed Pond — one of those lakes — was under threat. Charr had survived thousands of years just to face rainbow smelt, a fish native to some waters in Maine, but illegally introduced into Big Reed Pond. Smelt caused charr numbers to plummet, competing with them for food and feeding on newly hatched charr.

“It was terrible. A large part of the value of this business that we bought was the fact that Reed Pond was a successful fishery,” Sikorsky said. “That was many of our guests’ favorite pond to fish in the whole world.”

Though the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had been managing charr populations since the 1960s, the threat of rainbow smelt kicked their efforts into high gear, beginning a 10-year process to reclaim Big Reed Pond.

Operation: Reclamation

Frank Frost, fisheries biologist with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, led the charge against smelt in Big Reed Pond.

He had overseen charr management and conservation since 2000 and was witnessed to the sudden decline of Arctic charr in Big Reed Pond.

At this point, it wasn’t enough to just try to increase charr numbers. Without removing smelt all together, the charr population would inevitably fall again.

Frost and his team decided on a total reset of Big Reed Pond: a reclamation.

Aquatic reclamation involves removing unwanted fish species from a water body, like the illegally introduced smelt, and then restocking it with desired fish species, like native Arctic charr and brook trout. At Big Reed the removal process involved a plant-based product called Rotenone, which impacts the way that fish use oxygen in the water.

Before biologists eradicated the smelt and restored the pond fishery, they had to make sure there would be enough charr to support a healthy population. The state partnered with a local hatchery to rear charr for later reintroduction.

But even this first step posed challenges. They needed to catch as many of the few remaining charr as possible to begin the rearing process.

It took four years. And in all that time, they were able to catch only 14.

Maine state biologists toil to catch charr for captive rearing. Credit: Maine DIFW

The second challenge was transportation.

The long hike up to the pond cuts through the largest old growth forest in New England and the fish wouldn’t survive the long trek out.

“Time was of the essence,” Sikorsky said.

So they forewent the trail and took to the sky.

Aided by helicopters from the Maine Army National Guard and the Sikorsky’s floatplane, those lone 14, the sole future of charr in Big Reed, were flown to the hatchery where they would reside while biologists cleared the pond of the unwelcome visitors.

“We actually didn’t lose a single fish in the flying process,” Sikorsky said.

Then, in October 2010, it was finally time to reclaim Big Reed. Thousands of pounds of gear, Rotenone, state staff and volunteers were flown in.

It took several days. State biologists needed to eradicate rainbow smelt from every inch of Big Reed Pond.

And they did. Since the reclamation, smelt have not been found at Big Reed Pond.

The following summer, hundreds of hatchery-raised charr, with direct bloodlines from Big Reed, were reintroduced to the pond. This continued for three consecutive years in hopes of carrying on the legacy of this ancient fish by producing a wild charr spawn.

It Takes a Village

The large-scale operation came with a lot of uncertainty — as well as a lot of partners to ensure its success.

Frost noted the important roles of Bradford Camps, the University of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, as well as the Maine Army Aviation Support Facility in Bangor and the Presque Isle High School Aquaculture Facility. Some funding for hatchery efforts came from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.

“With these really complex, long term projects, you just can’t stand alone,“ Frost said.

Critical funding for this project came through the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Fund administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These funds support state fish and wildlife agency partners to restore and manage sport fish for the benefit of the public, including rare sport fish species like the Arctic charr.

“The project wouldn’t have happened without Sport Fish funds,” said Peter Bourque, former Director of Fisheries for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

These funds are generated in part through a tax on fishing equipment and boating fuels, and help to support sportfish management and restoration throughout the country.

“It was money well spent by the anglers who bought their fishing rods,” Sikorsky said.

In recognition of the restoration, the American Fisheries Society presented the department and Maine DIFW fisheries biologist Frank Frost with their annual Sport Fish Restoration Outstanding Project award in 2017.

Igor Sikorsky shows off hatchery raised charr before depositing them into Big Reed Pond. Credit: Maine DIFW

“When you have the benefit of collaboration and planning, you have more control over the outcome,” said Francis Brautigam, the current DIFW Director of Fisheries. “Proactive conservation allows for out-of-the-box thinking, and the ability to pursue strategic and collaborative solutions to complex issues.”

The outcome was a win for wildlife and people. A species once destined for the federal endangered species list was determined to be stable — even increasing.

Faith, Reward, and Relief

Last summer, success materialized at Big Reed.

Frost and his son, Noah, were out on the water on a warm June day, pulling in nets, looking for evidence that charr had successfully reproduced in Big Reed. Then they spotted something.

“I knew it was a wild fish as soon as it came out of the water,” Frost said.

Small, about 10 inches, pale silver with a tell-tale blue back, and — most importantly — hatched naturally in Big Reed, this charr was a symbol of triumph.

After so much time away from home while working at Big Reed, Frost recounted how meaningful it was to have his son with him that day. Noah recently started the same undergraduate program Frost completed 30 years prior, carrying on the family legacy: fisheries biology, at the University of Maine.

“I didn’t have to explain how important this fish was; he knew,” Frost said.

 

The Arctic charr is one of more than 185 fish, wildlife and plants in the eastern U.S. that have recovered, been downlisted, or did not need listing under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to coordination with public and private partners. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other organizations. Our use of conservation incentives and flexibilities to protect wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working has drawn bipartisan support from Congress.

Bats on the rocks: new habitat may provide refuge from white-nose syndrome

Today’s post is from writer Gretchen Newberry, a Ph.D. candidate at the University of South Dakota Biology Department. Gretchen studies habitat, nest success and heat stress of the Common Nighthawk. This month, she is switching from birds to bats — the vital role they play in nature and efforts to respond to white-nose syndrome, a deadly fungal disease that has killed more than six million bats in North America during the past decade.

In March every year, a colony of bats has been emerging from a honeycomb of cracks within the talus slopes in Maine, a newly discovered habitat. These rock piles anchor the base of cliffs in coastal and western areas of the state and are composed of stones that range from golf ball-sized to boulders Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologist Cory Mosby describes as “Volkswagen-sized.” Researchers in Maine are on a quest to learn more about the bat species that use these non-traditional habitats, their home ranges, and the prevalence of white-nose syndrome (WNS) in this talus habitat.

Accessibility to these sites is an issue. Crevices are too small for a person to climb into, so white-nose syndrome (WNS) researchers must wait for warm winter days or the end of winter for bats to appear. And while the westward- marching leading edge of the disease is in faraway states like Nebraska, Texas or Washington, researchers in Maine, where WNS has been established for nearly a decade, still have much to learn about non-traditional habitats, the bats that use them, and their significance for management of the deadly disease of hibernating bats.

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Talus slope in western Maine. Credit: Cory Mosby, Maine Dept. of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.

Places like Acadia National Park are on the frontier of research in the Northeast because coastal talus slopes are off the beaten path. While large cave and mine sites that have experienced large die-offs associated with the WNS fungus, Pseudogymnoscaus destructans or Pd, are relatively well-studied, biologists have only begun to account for other habitat types in the region.

This winter Mosby will explore Acadia National Park’s talus slopes with the help of many years of research by park biologists. For the past two winters, Mosby explains, park researchers like Bruce Connery have radio-tagged bats at their hibernation sites to describe their home ranges. While Acadia National park is on an island connected to the mainland by a bridge, bats often cross the waters and range 8-10 miles inland.

With a team of researchers that includes Connery, Erik Blomberg of University of Maine – Orono, and David Yates of the Biodiversity Research Institute, Mosby hopes to shed light on where Maine’s bats give birth and hibernate.

In Acadia National Park alone, Mosby’s team will survey 5 acres of rock, a labor- and time-intensive endeavor as an infrared camera can only detects bats within a narrow field of vision.

Recording bat calls with detectors will be crucial as they will monitor approximately 30 talus slopes November to March across the state, focusing on mainland mid-coast and White Mountain regions.

When bats emerge, the team will catch them with large, fine “mist” nets and identify the species, which could include northern long-eared bats, eastern small-footed bats, and little brown bats. They will swab the bats for Pd and assess wing wear associated with the fungus. The researchers will assign each bat a wing score because deteriorating skin, holes in the thin skin between their digits, and scars are an index of body condition and a predictor of the bat’s ability to shed the fungus in warmer months.

If the research is successful, information about this newly discovered habitat will yield important information about WNS, because bats typically pick up Pd in winter and slough off the fungus in warmer months. These smaller crevices might hold smaller colonies and provide a refuge for the state’s bat population while larger colonies in caves and mines might be facing greater exposure to the fungus.

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A brown bat with white-nose syndrome. Credit: USFWS

This research and a project in Nebraska also looking at non-traditional bat roosting sites are two of 13 research projects funded by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in 2017 in a $1.5 million effort to investigate issues related directly to management of WNS . When asked how his work differs from projects in the west, Mosby replies “Maine is not unique.” Everywhere, there is large difference in numbers between the bats the researchers see emerge into the night sky and those that fall into their mist nets. Like everyone else, he adds, “We just want to want to know: Where do the bats go?”

For more information and to find your local contact, visit whitenosesyndrome.org.

Hands On, Dam’s Gone

Today we’re hearing from Kirstin Underwood, biologist with the Gulf of Maine Coastal Program, as she teams up with partners to remove a dam in a remote section of the Sunday River in Western Maine. 

For me, the most rewarding thing about being a biologist is the chance to get outside, work hard and get my hands dirty. So when I heard about a dam that would be removed entirely by hand and human power in a remote region of western Maine, of course I wanted to be a part of it!

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A derelict log dam on the Sunday River in Maine, blocking access to important cold water habitat for brook trout and other fish species. Its original purpose was to flush logs downstream from the mountains for the lumber trade

The most interesting thing about this dam in the west branch of the Sunday River was that for a long time, no one really knew it was there. During historic logging runs of the 1930’s, several log dams were built in rivers throughout Maine’s Mahoosuc Mountain Range to flush lumber downstream from the mountains. Many disintegrated or washed away overtime, but the ones that remained were built to last. Jeff Stern of the Androscoggin River Watershed Council (ARWC), key partner spearheading this project, has a special talent for locating remnant dams in remote streams of the Androscoggin watershed. He discovered this fully intact 8-foot-high dam, built with massive white pine logs and foot-long metal spikes, sometime last spring. It spanned the river fully, blocking brook trout and other fish species from accessing important coldwater habitat upstream (great places to feed, spawn and escape the summer heat). Property owner Sunday River ski resort granted permission to remove the dam, and Stern got to work with other key partners (including Maine Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife (MEIFW), Project SHARE, the Maine Fish & Wildlife Conservation Office (USFWS), Trout Unlimited (TU), and the Androscoggin Valley Soil & Water Conservation District (AVSWC)) to make the removal happen.

Getting to the west branch of the Sunday River was an adventure in itself. We followed a caravan of eager workers and volunteers along several miles of dusty old logging roads. When the road ended in an overgrown logging trail, we loaded grip hoists, pry bars, and all of our other gear onto an ATV and walked a half mile to the site. Our crew was a conglomeration of people and interests: 14 scientists, fishing enthusiasts and habitat restoration specialists from MEIFW, ARWC, USFWS, Project SHARE, TU, and AVSWC all showed up to provide labor and technical expertise. Everyone sprang to action, hooking grip hoist cables to the grid of 30-foot logs that were tightly wedged in the stream bed by years of sediment deposit. When three separate grip hoists were attached to the heaviest logs, it took all of our strength to crank the handles hard enough to shake the logs from side to side, even with help from a chainsaw to weaken them! Cheers resounded whenever painstaking effort on the grip hoist finally led to a satisfying crunch as another log was wrenched free.

 

Two days, four grip hoists, a few crowbars, and one exhausted crew later, water flowed freely through the dam and fish passage was significantly improved. Though a large chunk of the structure remained in the river, enough had been removed to allow erosion to restore natural stream processes. Days after we left the site, natural restoration had already begun; high water from a storm surge washed out a huge block of dirt and gravel that had been held back by the logs for decades.

The best part of this project was actually getting out to do the work to restore fish passage, rather than sitting idly by to watch someone else do it. There is still work to do before the structure is completely removed, and I can’t wait to return to the site in fall or spring to finish.

This project was funded through a grant with the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, federal funds managed by USFWS.