Thursday, September 22, 2011

I've been doing very little personal writing lately. It comes in spurts, I guess, and right now I'm in a spurt of exercising rather than writing. Barefoot running and hot yoga will, I'm sure, inspire some good words in the future. Today my bikram yoga instructor said, "Your thoughts become your reality. Think carefully."

I'm so grateful that the Valley News has given me so many opportunities to write about rivers. Here's another. Reprinted, as always, with permission, and not to be reproduced or distributed. Photos, also as always, are my own, and are from the Rockies, not the Appalachians, where I also got to shock the hell out of some finned creatures.

Originally published July 20.

Etna -- A cloud of bug spray hung thick in the air as a group of volunteers pulled on waders and rubber gloves on a quiet roadside above Mink Brook last week.
   "This is exciting!" said 10-year-old Oliver Morgan, scrambling down the steep bank. "I can't wait to zap fish!"
   The group of six Hanover and Etna residents had gathered for the first of a three-day project helping state fisheries biologists collect data on brook trout populations in Mink Brook, part of a statewide research project to assess -- as a prelude to protecting -- wild "brookies" in watersheds across New Hampshire.
   "There's a lot of uses for this data," said fisheries biologist Matt Carpenter, who gets to spend much of his summer splashing around coldwater streams. "Data gives you the power to make policies: prioritizing areas for protection, ... protecting what's good and intact, and restoring what can be improved."
   Though it was a hot, muggy afternoon, the air was cool and inviting down in the shady gulch, and everyone seemed glad to be working outside. Another fisheries biologist, Ben Nugent, stood in the water with an intriguing device strapped to his back: an electroshocker, used to send a low-voltage electric shock into the water to temporarily stun fish so they can be collected and counted.
   "Everyone helping needs to wear rubber gloves," Nugent instructed the three young boys watching him eagerly. "OK, now ... get your nets ready. It's like basketball or lacrosse -- you can't make a play unless your net's in place."
   Positioning themselves downstream of Nugent, Oliver, 10-year-old Spencer Brown and 14-year-old Ethan Winter stood ready with their long-handled nets in place. With a beeeep-beep-beep-beep that sounded like a metal detector, Nugent lowered a metal rod into the stream and zapped the water. Immediately, the boys lunged forward, trying to scoop up the slippery silver shapes that floated to the surface.
   "They're all over the place," marveled volunteer Chip Brown, of Hanover. "Look at all those fish!"
   Calls of "got one!" and "zap it again, zap it again!" rang out as the team made their way upstream. The boys' fathers, Brown and fellow fishophile Chan Morgan, sloshed behind with five-gallon buckets into which the boys dropped squirming fish one by one. By the end, 100 meters upstream, the buckets were full of small, flopping fish, and the results were ready to be tallied.
   Sawyer Brown, Spencer's 7-year-old brother, crouched on the bank next to Carpenter. Together, the two measured and weighed each fish, while Nugent recorded their findings along with habitat information such as stream temperature, width and GPS location.
   Nugent explained that data from watersheds such as Mink Brook will be used alongside Geographic Information System (GIS) maps showing population density, agricultural development and other land uses to eventually determine "threshold points" -- at what point, for example, a watershed becomes too developed or too dirty to support brook trout.
   New Hampshire's effort to sustain and improve native trout populations is part of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, a Maine-to-Georgia initiative organized by Trout Unlimited. Brook trout are a good indicator of water quality, anglers value them and they're essential to healthy, functioning aquatic ecosystems.
   But brookies are under duress. Results from the studies so far show that intact brook trout populations exist in only 5 percent of streams where they once thrived, and they no longer exist at all in most large rivers. Maine has the majority of the "intact" populations, while Vermont and New Hampshire each contain fragmented, but self-sustaining, populations.
   "These streams are still recovering from a century of agriculture and industry," said Brown, a Trout Unlimited member and lifelong fisherman who helped lead the push to get Mink Brook included in New Hampshire's research efforts. "The trees didn't get big enough to fall, so large woody debris was really lacking," he added, referring to conditions that create the shadowy pools favored by trout.
   Though some brook trout populations have rebounded as the state has been reforested, challenges such as sediment run-off, urban development, dams and culverts continue to threaten the species' full recovery. Additionally, said Nugent, biologists have thus far lacked the data needed to thoroughly evaluate populations.
   The need for more data was one of the reasons that Chip Brown, when he learned of the Eastern Brook Trout Joint Venture, contacted the state wildlife department to find out if Hanover's largest stream could be included in the research.
   The other reason, though, was to give local students the chance to take part. In all, more than 20 people volunteered over the course of the project, including a dozen Hanover students from second to ninth grade.
   "We don't usually get this much interest from volunteers," said Nugent. "This is really helpful."
   "Part of the reason I love seeing these guys down here," said Brown, referring to his sons and the other student volunteers, "is that I got into fishing as a kid. It's fun to go to a stream and pick up a rock and just find stuff.
   "The high schools have been actively involved in bringing kids to local streams and getting them excited about stream biology, and this is just an extension of that," he added.
   At the end of the day, the students were happily exhausted from chasing trout, skipping rocks and dashing after frogs. And the adults were pleased that Mink Brook appeared to be a thriving watershed. After three days of electroshocking at 16 different sites along Mink Brook and its tributaries, the study yielded 213 specimens of wild brook trout (all of which were released), caddis fly larvae and 54 wild Atlantic salmon fry (which may have been introduced to the brook in an effort to reintroduce that species).
   "It seems like it's in good health," Brown said of the brook, "and we'd love to keep it in good health."
   Adair Mulligan, executive director for the Hanover Conservation Council and another driving force behind the Mink Brook project, said education is another key component of keeping brook trout populations on the incline.
   "Two things that residents can do for the fish community are to plant a riparian buffer zone -- vegetation for shade along stream banks -- and create rain gardens -- depressions with native plants that can collect and filter run-off rather than having it go straight to the stream," she said.
   "This is remarkable to have so many state biologists on our watershed," Mulligan added. "The Hanover Conservation Council is excited because (Mink Brook) is our highest priority."

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