Barely hanging on

One small stream supports county’s brook trout

They’re small and speckled and often have a striking orange belly. They love cool, clear streams that wind through the woods.

They’re brook trout, a favorite of anglers and environmentalists alike.

But brook trout are becoming harder and harder to find in Maryland. And the last little stream in Anne Arundel County that’s home to brook trout may be on the brink of becoming too polluted for the fish to survive, some advocates worry.

ABOVE:File photo by J. Henson
BELOW: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

In this 2004 file photo, DNR biologists Mark Staley holds a net as Todd Heerd uses an electro-fishing wand to stun small fish during a trout count expedition in the left fork of the Jabez Branch in Millersville.

The Jabez Branch of the Severn River trickles through an area near the intersection of Interstate 97 and Route 32 that could either be called Millersville or Gambrills.

There are few homes or buildings in the area, and here, even the woosh of highway traffic just beyond the trees melts away.

Like most trout streams, the Jabez is one of the cleanest streams around.

Brook trout can survive only in cool, clear streams — a rarity in Anne Arundel County and Central Maryland.

“Anne Arundel is unique. We only have our one trout stream to hang our hat on,” said Charlie Gougeon, a Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologist who has worked with brook trout for nearly 28 years.

Sensitive nature
Brook trout need specific conditions to survive. They don’t tolerate water warmer than 68 degrees. As sight feeders, they need clear water without sediment that would cloud their vision.

“Where you find brook trout, you find fairly pristine water,” Mr. Gougeon said.

Brook trout are considered a “biological indicator species.” In other words, if bad things are happening to brook trout, bad things may be happening to other critters who live in the same body of water.

That’s important in the Jabez, as it’s one of the main sources of freshwater flowing into the Severn River, which then empties into the Chesapeake Bay.

“The Jabez is the headwaters of the Severn and the headwaters are the most important areas to protect for our waterways,” said Severn Riverkeeper Fred Kelly, who organized a Jabez stream cleanup this spring.

Because of the brook trout’s sensitive nature, development is a major threat.

When trees are cut down, there’s less shade to keep the water cool. Stormwater runoff that rushes along impervious surfaces heats up, and picks up sediment that warms and clouds the streamwater.

It doesn’t take much to throw the delicate balance off kilter. State stream surveyors rarely find brook trout in streams where more than 2 percent of the drainage area is solid, impervious surfaces such as roads, rooftops and driveways. The Jabez area has 7 percent impervious surfaces, making the survival of brook trout exceptional.

But it wasn’t always this way. The Jabez brook trout population was essentially wiped out in the 1980s due to development and made an impressive comeback in the 1990s.

And because brook trout are so sensitive and require such a clean habitat, it may not take much to topple the population once again.
Lake Median

Highway construction was the downfall for the Jabez brook trout.

When Interstate 97 was built, a pond was constructed in the Route 3 median to collect the stormwater rushing off the highway.

The pond — fittingly called “Lake Median” — drained into the Jabez. The dirty, warm stormwater from the pond threw off the stream’s delicate ecology and spelled death for the brook trout.

A concerted effort followed, which involved plugging up the stormwater pond, preserving undeveloped land in the area and stocking the Jabez with adult trout from other streams.

By the mid-1990s, the brook trout were reproducing on their own again.

The success was a combined effort of the DNR, transportation officials, county officials and a band of concerned residents led by Lina Vlavianos, who is chairman of a government advisory body called the Severn River Commission.

Ms. Vlavianos is committed to protecting brook trout in the area and will lead a walk along the Jabez on Oct. 24 for environmentalists and county officials.

“In such an urban, developed area, that you would have brook trout is so extraordinary,” she said.

Watching development
The commission has been keeping a close eye on the Jabez ever since trout were brought back.

Members have lobbied for a special zoning area to protect the Jabez, and could bring a proposal to the County Council within a year.

Development proposals in the area are routinely met with concern from people who want to protect the Jabez.

The debate over what should happen to the former Naval Academy Dairy Farm (which partially drains into the Jabez) riled Jabez supporters.

They fought against a plan to turn the farm into a horse park complete with a show ring and large parking lots for competitions.

But much of the concern over development has centered on a proposed subdivision of homes called Holladay Park. The South Shore Development Co. has been trying to gain approval for the project for at least a decade.

Several years ago, South Shore put “conservation easements” on about 50 acres of its land. Conservation easements are legal documents that limit or ban development on a property.

And more recently, South Shore — which is owned by the local Baldwin family that also owns Reliable Contracting — went back to the drawing board to develop plans using the most modern stormwater controls to limit disturbance to the Jabez.

“We kind of started over out there,” said Reliable President Jay Baldwin.

Mr. Baldwin said the new techniques — which allow rainwater to infiltrate the ground in a more natural way — are actually cheaper than traditional curbs and drains and stormwater ponds. He thinks it could be the wave of the future for responsible development.

He’s working with Keith Underwood, a well-known local landscape architect who has worked on innovative stormwater and stream projects. The two were connected by members of the Severn River Commission.

Mr. Gougeon, of the Department of Natural Resources, said he hopes the project works, because it won’t take much to lose the trout again. And if that happens, it may be impossible to bring them back again.

“We can ruin things pretty quickly,” he said. “And when it comes to bringing them back and resuscitating them, I can tell you we rarely resuscitate them to what we had.”

He’s already concerned because a Jabez survey this spring showed no juvenile brook trout — though it’s possible that biologists simply missed the best time to find them.

Ms. Vlavianos, the commission chairman, also is holding out hope that the Holladay Park project works.
“It has to, it has to,” she said. “Because if it doesn’t work, bye-bye Jabez. It’s as simple as that.”

BROOK TROUT LOWDOWN

  • The brook trout, Salvelinus fontinalis, is the only native trout in Maryland, although it’s technically part of the salmon family.
  • Brook trout can be distinguished from other trout by their light spots on a dark background — which is opposite from most trout.
  • The spots on the top of the fish can be longer and worm-like. The brook trout’s bottom fins can be shades of red, orange or yellow.
  • They live in clear, cool streams, usually in forested areas.
  • To reproduce, female brook trout lay eggs in gravelly streambeds in the fall. The eggs are fertilized by the males and covered with gravel. The eggs hatch in late winter and the fry swim out of the gravel in early spring.
  • There’s no commercial market for brook trout, but it’s legal for recreational fishermen to catch brook trout in most parts of Maryland. The state requests, though, that anglers engage in catch-and-release fishing only.
  • The Maryland Department of Natural Resources tries to keep brook trout streams under the radar, but does publicize the lower Savage River in Garrett
  • County as a good spot for catching brook trout.
  • Problems facing brook trout include loss of forests, warming water through stormwater runoff and global warming, drainage from acid mines and blockages from dams and culverts. In this area, forest loss and increased development are the main problems.
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    Sources: Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture.


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    pwood@capitalgazette.com

(Revised Oct 2007)