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Vanity plate grant bolstering brook trout

Steve Fry, president of the Appalachian Chapter of Trout Unlimited, presents a check to support scientific research and propagation of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute. (l-r) Steve Fry; Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, Aquarium Science Program Manager; Dr. Anna George, Aquarium VP of Conservation Science and Education; Shawna Mitchell, Aquarium Science Coordinator; and Meredith Harris, Aquarium Reintroduction Biologist. (Photo: Contributed)

Despite their undeniable beauty and popularity among anglers, the rainbow trout and brown trout found in Southeastern streams are really just gilded aquatic invaders.

Rainbows are native to waterways west of the Rockies, and browns arrived alongside Germany immigrants in the late 19th century. Since their introduction to the Eastern U.S. in the 1930s (rainbows) and late-1880s (browns), these trout species have often out-competed brook trout, the only species native to the waterways of Southern Appalachia. Consequently, the modern Southern Appalachian Brook Trout only occupies a fraction — less than 15 percent — of its historical range in Tennessee.

Through the sale of special vanity license plates (see image), however, the Appalachian Chapter of Trout Unlimited has supported efforts by the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute and its partners to better understand and restore the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout to its native range.

Recently, Steve Fry, the chapter’s president, presented a check for $7,500 to Aquarium Vice President of Conservation Science and Education Dr. Anna George. This grant is Trout Unlimited’s third contribution to the Institute’s ongoing research into and propagation of this beautiful fish, which is a popular target of anglers and immediately identifiable by its speckled patterning and white-rimmed, red fins.

“The biologists here are the experts,” Fry says. “They ensure these fish have the correct food, water conditions and temperatures. That’s their thing. We know they’ll do it right.”

The grant from Trout Unlimited will be used to fund the rearing of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout at the Institute’s new freshwater science facility. The fish raised through this program will be released into Stoney Creek, a waterway about 15 miles northeast of Johnson City, Tennessee.

Several years ago, scientists at the Tennessee Aquarium Conservation Institute pioneered techniques to rear Southern Appalachian Brook Trout in a recirculating system. Using a closed system indoors has several advantages over outdoor flow-through systems, especially when it comes to harsh weather conditions, Fry says.

“Last year, we had problems with a historic drought and the water temperature got too hot,” Fry says, referencing conditions at an outdoor hatchery. “The system wasn’t set up for the heat because the water comes from a creek, and the creek got too hot, so they couldn’t raise fish last year.”

Despite a range that extends north into the Great Lakes, Canada and New England, the southern strain of the Brook Trout is genetically distinct from its northern cousins. A 2014 grant from Trout Unlimited also helped fund efforts by scientists at the Conservation Institute to conduct genetic testing on populations of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout released into another stream.

The ongoing support of Trout Unlimited is bolstering a multi-faceted approach to understanding and conserving this vitally important native species, says ichthyologist Dr. Bernie Kuhajda, the Institute’s manager of science programs.

“With the support we’re getting from the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited, we’re able to do some scientific investigations into why Brook Trout do what they do but also help to improve the status of a population,” Kuhajda says. “We’re coming at it both from the scientific side and the management side.

“Trout Unlimited are very serious about trying to understand everything we can about Southern Appalachian Brook Trout. The state of Tennessee, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and non-government organizations like the Tennessee Council of Trout Unlimited are very instrumental in trying to bring these fishes back to somewhat where they were before settlement.”

For more information about the Appalachian Chapter of Trout Unlimited, visit appalachiantu.org.

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