An old trout finds new life in Jersey waters
Something akin to a modern dinosaur is lurking in a few of New Jersey's backwoods creeks.
The brightly speckled and bluish brook trout living in at least 11 northern tributaries and streams are direct descendants of the "brookies" that splashed around after glaciers receded from the region 12,000 years ago, a seven-year study released yesterday has confirmed.
Called "heritage trout" because they are genetically linked to the first and only trout native to New Jersey waters, legislators honored the brook trout by naming it New Jersey's state fish in 1992. But the ancestral or heritage brookies were thought to have died out at the end of the 19th century, after hundreds of years of stream degradation that followed European settlement of the region.
"It's nice to be able to toot our horn a little that, not only do we have wild trout in New Jersey, but we also have populations that have been here a long time," said Principal Fisheries Biologist Patricia Hamilton of the state Division of Fish and Wildlife, who spearheaded the research.
"They may just have been a heartier fish," she said of how a few pockets of the "heritage trout" survived.
Volunteers, interns and one federal scientist helped in the genetic collection and analysis Hamilton conducted, largely in her spare time since 2000. She uncovered heritage trout populations in 11 tributaries, streams and creeks in two major river basins -- the Passaic-Hackensack and the Raritan.
Located mainly in Morris, Passaic and Bergen counties, and touching on Sussex and Hunterdon counties, the creeks and streams are largely at the headwater areas of the river basins where development has been scattered, and not as intense as in other areas. Some are remote sections of creeks commonly known among trout fishermen, such as Flanders Brook, Hacklebarney Brook and Havemeyer Brook.
Another "doesn't really have a name. I refer to it as south of Hoffman Tributary to the South Branch of the Raritan River. It's so small, it doesn't have an official name," Hamilton said.
The importance of the find ripples beyond New Jersey.
The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reports that heritage brookies, genetically distinct in different areas, are declining in their original range from the Arctic Circle to Georgia and west to the Mississippi River. In 2004, the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture was formed when 50 state and federal wildlife agencies, including New Jersey, joined private organizations and academic groups to outline efforts to preserve the heritage brookies.
Beyond conservation, the importance of the brook trout as an environmental indicator cannot be underestimated. The fish requires high-quality fresh water to survive. Where they are found is a good indicator of quality water.
When they are not found, trouble may exist -- and New Jersey did not realize it had any heritage trout left until now.
"It's fairly significant in a place like New Jersey," Hamilton said.
Heritage trout had to overcome not only development and pollution, but also a well-meaning, yet lethal re-introduction program. In 1879, New Jersey authorities tried to replenish its streams with farm-raised brook trout that carried a DNA strain from wild New Hampshire trout.
Non-native brown trout and rainbow trout soon followed, as the focus of stocking turned to feed the recreational fishing demands. There also was the "Johnny Appleseed" effect -- people privately stocking trout.
Those stocked species successfully spawned their own wild populations over the decades, and reproducing populations of browns, rainbows and brookies can be found in more than 964 miles -- or about 5 percent -- of New Jersey's 17,835 miles of streams and creeks. Biologists estimate that 120 creeks and streams carry wild brook trout -- and it was in 2000 that Hamilton set out to see if heritage trout were still swimming in any of them.
"It is absolutely astonishing to find that we have brookies placed here eons ago by the hand of God, not just trout stocked by men from stocking trucks," said Agust Gudmundsson of the New Jersey Council of Trout Unlimited, an environmental organization.
"I couldn't have dreamed that something like this was possible after the pounding we gave this state for hundreds of years. I have historic postcards of this area from the 1800s, and there wasn't a tree in sight. This is amazing," he added.
Brian Murray may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.