What’s so special about Maine’s wild trout and salmon?
Maine is the last true stronghold in the East for wild Brook Trout, and has the only remaining populations of landlocked Arctic Charr and sea-run Atlantic Salmon. With the most extensive distribution, abundance, and habitat diversity of eastern Brook Trout within their native U.S. range, Maine’s wild Brook Trout waters represent a unique, valuable, and irreplaceable ecological resource.
Unlike in other states, Maine’s Brook Trout can be found in small remote ponds and large deep lakes; small tributary streams and very large rivers; beaver flow-ages and kettle hole ponds; high elevation ponds; and coastal estuaries and streams. The quantity and quality of Maine’s Brook Trout depend on two major factors: Maine’s vast intact forestlands, which protect the streams and lakes that support Brook Trout; and Maine’s relative lack of non-native fish that compete with or prey on Brook Trout.
Maine is the only state in the continental U.S. with wild populations of Arctic Charr and Atlantic Salmon. Both species only occur at a few sites. Endemic populations of Arctic Charr are found only in 12 lakes. Atlantic Salmon occur in small numbers in rivers connected to the ocean; the Penobscot River currently supports the largest amount.
Brook Trout and Atlantic Salmon have important cultural and historic significance in Maine as well. These fish have been an essential food source for Native Americans for hundreds of years, they are interwoven with our state’s recreational past, and have helped to shape our state’s economy and sporting traditions.
In recognition of the importance of wild trout, the State Legislature passed the Maine State Heritage Fish Law, naming Brook Trout and Arctic Charr as State Heritage Fish and protecting designated waters from fish stocking and use of live bait fish.
Threats to wild trout and salmon habitat
A range of pressures including forestry practices, development, dams, invasive species, and over-fishing have compromised or destroyed wild fish and their habitat across their range. Brook Trout and Arctic Charr are sensitive species that require clean, cold waters and are intolerant to changes in habitat. Some of the largest threats to Brook Trout include: the introduction of non-native species, such as predatory sportfish and popular competing baitfish; adjacent land use practices that influence hydrology, physical habitat, water temperature, water quality, and input of organic and woody material; and limited connectivity caused by dams and inadequate culverts that frequently prevent movement between important habitats (this has been identified as the primary threat to recovery of Atlantic Salmon).
Because Maine is at the northern edge of the lower 48’s Brook Trout, Arctic Charr, and Atlantic Salmon’s range, and still has a relatively undeveloped landscape with thousands of intact lakes, ponds, and streams, Maine’s watersheds are predicted to be some of the most resistant to climate change. Maine waters are therefore essential to sustaining these species—and opportunities to fish for them. Through proper identification and regulation, and proactive conservation and restoration measures, these waters can be protected, reconnected, and restored so these Heritage Fish can thrive in the future.
Rule changes to protect wild trout waters
The Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife—with support from the State Heritage Fish Working Group—has adopted new rules to enhance protections for these Heritage Fish, while preserving traditional fishing methods and economies. The focus of the new rules is to reduce the risk of introducing non-native fish into these wild trout waters, which many biologists and conservationists view as a serious threat to native Brook Trout and Arctic Charr populations.
In the North Zone—which contains 95% of the designated State Heritage Fish Waters and much of the wild Brook Trout resource in the state—General Law Regulations have been changed to prohibit the use of live fish as bait except where designated by special rule, reducing the chance of any new introductions of baitfish and other fish in the vast majority of flowing waters, deadwaters, and small ponds. Waters that were open to ice fishing with use of live fish as bait remain open and are assigned a special regulation to allow continued use of live bait fish. Live bait fish are also allowed on those waters during the open water fishing season. The change also simplified state rules by eliminating hundreds of “no live fish as bait” special rule listings that were previously in place.
In the South Zone—where there are 26 Heritage Waters, 16 of which have tributaries—no live fish as bait special regulations were applied to tributaries of the 16 Heritage Ponds with tributaries via special S-Code (S4) in the law book. An alternative strategy is being used to protect tributaries to heritage ponds in the South Zone, where a prevalence of introduced species does not warrant the same approach as in the North Zone.
These new rules are only one important part of a suite of conservation initiatives the state is pursuing with a range of partners.
Other projects include: surveying remote ponds and coastal streams for Brook Trout; genetic analysis to determine whether stocked fish genes have infiltrated wild trout genomes; prioritizing high quality habitat, such as cold water refugia, for conservation; restoring degraded habitat by adding downed wood into streams to create feeding, resting, and nursery areas; understanding the influence of adjacent land use activities on habitat suitability; protecting shoreland habitat; and reconnecting fragmented waterways by removing dams and using Stream Smart practices.
The goal of Stream Smart is to connect fish and wildlife habitat while protecting roads and public safety and to prepare for the large and frequent storm events that have been washing out roads around the state. In short, let the stream act like a stream! For more information, visit maineaudubon.org/streamsmart
How you can help
- Leave your live baitfish at home before heading out to fish for Brook Trout or Arctic Charr in most of the North Zone or in Heritage Waters in the South Zone.
- Beat the heat. Concentrate your fishing in spring, early summer, and late fall to give wild trout and salmon a break during the time of year when they are already stressed by hot summer temperatures.
- Handle fish with care. Keep both the fish and your hands wet at all times; hold the fish carefully under the belly and around the tail, rather than by the gills; and hold the fish gently in the water to revive it before releasing.
- Make the switch to lead-free tackle so loons and other wildlife don’t suffer from lead poisoning. For information on turning in lead tackle and where to find lead-free tackle, visit fishleadfree.org/me.
- Help survey coastal streams for the presence of sea-run Brook Trout. Check the Maine Audubon or Trout Unlimited websites for more info. You can also record your observations and catches in IFW’s Volunteer Angler Survey Book.
- Get involved! Help an organization of your choosing protect and reconnect Brook Trout and Atlantic Salmon lakes, ponds, and streams across Maine.