What We Have to Lose
Growing up in Maine, I learned to fly fish over mostly wild native fish in remote and unspoiled places. I am blessed to have spent countless hours pursuing wild native brook trout, landlocked salmon, lake trout, Arctic charr and striped bass.
Maine’s wild native brook trout, salmon and Arctic charr are a rare and unique resource. These fish can be found in such diverse places as shallow unnamed ponds deep in the north woods to sprawling Moosehead Lake, the largest lake entirely in New England. They live in tiny mountain streams as well as large rivers such as the Kennebec and Penobscot.
Maine is home to the last populations of wild native Atlantic salmon – a federally endangered species – in the United States. The last remaining wild native Arctic charr in the contiguous United States are also found only in Maine. And more than 90% of the wild native sea-run and pond-dwelling brook trout left in the nation live in Maine.
Atlantic salmon were once found from the Hudson River in New York to Maine’s border with Canada. Arctic charr were historically found in New Hampshire and Vermont, as well as Maine. Sea-run brook trout once inhabited countless coastal streams from Long Island to Canada. And brook trout once called lakes and ponds throughout the entire northeast home.
Outside Maine, Atlantic salmon and charr have been extirpated. Sea-run brook trout populations have been greatly reduced, and they remain in just a handful of streams and rivers outside Maine. And wild pond-dwelling brook trout are gone from Massachusetts, rare in New Hampshire and Vermont, and limited in New York to the Adirondack Region.
Maine’s Arctic charr and Atlantic salmon are now the southernmost populations in the world. Charr exist in just twelve waters, two of which have been recently reclaimed, another of which is remnant, and one that recently experienced an introduction of highly invasive nonnative smelts. While once found throughout the state, most self-sustaining brook trout ponds in Maine are now found north of a line running from Rangeley to Greenville to Baxter State Park to Fort Kent for the most part.
The threats facing the wild native fish of Maine and the northeast today are some of the same from the time of European expansion. Pollution, development, road-building and fragmentation are still a problem. Nonnative fish introductions continue to plague our wild native fish, coming from state-sanctioned stocking, the legal use of bait, and so-called “bucket biology.” And angler exploitation continues to drive stocking over wild native fish, as it has for decades. New compounding threats come from climate change and modern resource extraction methods.
While Maine may be the last bastion for Arctic charr, Atlantic salmon, and pond-dwelling and sea-run brook trout, we too have lost much. Maine boasts 90% of the remaining pond-dwelling and sea-run brook trout, but it started with roughly 90%, and like other states has experienced significant losses. In fact, while many states have stopped losing ground, and some have even started regaining it, Maine continues to lose wild native salmonid populations.
We have a responsibility to protect and preserve this irreplaceable and valuable ecological resource. We do not own the resource, we are borrowing it from future generations. While we have lost much, we still have much that is worth saving. The only question left is if we are willing to do so.
Emily Bastian is a degreed biologist, avid fly fisher and Registered Maine Guide. She is a former employee of the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, Maine Audubon, Maine Appalachian Mountain Club and L.L. Bean. She is currently the General Manager of Trident Fly Fishing in Windham, Maine. Emily is a founding member of Native Fish Coalition, and the Chair of the Maine chapter. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.