From Fry to Fingerlings

As of April 26, 2012 we have about 150 fingerling brook trout at the hatchery.  Yes they are fingerlings and no longer fry.  Most are over 2 inches long; they are feeding well; and are retaining their inherent fear of people.

We operated the Tellico Brook Trout Hatchery as a flow through system this winter because we were not able to get the re-circulating system purchased and assembled.  Additionally, because we had such a warm winter, the temperature of the water that feeds the hatchery never stayed cold (below 40oF) for very long.  The fry kept on feeding all winter.  So, basically,  even if the re-circulating system had been set up the fry would not have grown much faster.  But, we all know that this winter was much warmer than most and a recirculating system at Tellico is essential for insuring good growth of the fry.

Sycamore Creek Brook Trout and Ephemerellidae Mayfly (photo courtesy Jim Herrig)

The adult brook trout that were collected and spawned last fall were held over with plans to keep them for spawning next fall.  These fish are also retaining their wild characteristics and should not pass on any hatchery traits.  We are not selecting “brood” fish that are easy to handle; grow exceptionally well on trout chow; or are adapted to seeing people.   Plans, for now, are to spawn these fish in the fall along with additional brook trout that will be collected in September/October then feed them for a couple of months to restore their body fat before releasing them back into Sycamore Creek.  The brook trout collected this fall will be held for a second spawning if this procedure works out for the currently held fish.

We have had two interns at the Tellico Brook Trout Hatchery over the winter.  They did their work well and, hopefully, benefitted from the experience of working at the hatchery.  We will find another intern to begin work in September.

USFS and TWRA Personnel Electrofish Sycamore Creek (Photo Courtesy Jim Herrig)

On April 19 Jim Herrig (US Forest Service), Travis Scott (TWRA), and Steven Mattocks (intern) hiked into the headwaters of Sycamore Creek with two backpack shockers and all the gear needed to conduct an electrofishing survey.  We electrofished below the natural barrier and caught 53 brook trout, including 10 Young-of-the-Year.  We weighed and measured all of them.  Their condition was excellent.  There were lots of bugs emerging including large yellow mayflies (see picture).  We also collected 17 rainbow trout which were also in good condition.  One rainbow was over 10 inches.  Hopefully, we will soon see brook trout of that size and quality in Sycamore Creek and other streams in East Tennessee as we continue our efforts to restore this native species.

Jim Herrig

On September 28 over 50 people participated in the latest effort to restore Southern Appalachian brook trout.  69 brookies were collected by a crew of TWRA and Forest Service personnel.  The trout were brought from a very remote section of Sycamore Creek up to the Benton-Macaye Trail where members of the Back Country Horsemen packed them into panyards and hauled them with horses to the upper trail head.  At the trail head the brookies were put into a water tank in the back of a pickup and transported to the Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery at Tellico.
Mean while, on the same day, three crews electrofished the lower 1.6 miles of Sycamore Creek to collect and remove rainbow trout.  Removing the rainbow trout will make room for the fingerling brook trout that will be produced in the hatchery.  Total removal of all rainbow trout is not necessary because brookies and rainbows can co-exist in the same stream.  About 800 rainbow trout were collected and transported in panyards on horseback to a waiting stocking truck at the lower trail head.  All 800 were rainbows were successfully transported down the trail and stocked into the Tellico River.

USFWS staff stripping eggs from a female Southern Appalachian brook trout at the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout hatchery.

On October 3, Biologists from the Erwin National Fish Hatchery came to the hatchery and tested the brook trout to see if the could be spawned.  One female was successfully spawned and produced about 85 eggs. The eggs were fertilized by three male brookies and placed into an incubator.  We will test the female brook trout again in about 10 days.

Jim Herrig

After over a year of internal and external renovations and improvements, the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery cleans up well.  On the outside the blockwork, foundation, and wood trim got new coats of paint and new signage.  Inside, the floor and foundation were primed and painted with a durable epoxy finish; The walls were insulated and covered with white fiberglass panels to facilitate cleaning; The ceiling was primed and repainted; Attic access and an attic door were added for storage; The electrical wiring was inspected and new outlets added; Tanks, raceways, incubators, reservoirs, filters, heating elements, chillers, pumps, plumbing, shelving, and air conditioning which will make up the infrastructure for fish propagation were installed as well. 

Agencies and organizations such as the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, U.S. Forest Service Cherokee National Forest, Conservation Fisheries Inc., U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Dale Hollow and Erwin, Trout Unlimited, and conservationists contributed to this phase of the project and their contributions are greatly appreciated.

That was the easy part.  In order to maximize and realize the full potential of the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout hatchery, adequate sources of funding will need to be raised.  The ability to raise this funding will make or break the project.  It’s that critical.  This funding is crucial to the operation of the facility, the propagation of the brook trout, and the restoration of streams the Southern Appalachian brook trout fingerlings will be introduced into and fiscally we’re a long way from where we need to be.

In an effort to help build and promote project awareness, identify and raise critical funding, the project is currently in the process of forming a non-profit 501(c)(3) entity. They will explore for consideration and aquisition, potential grants and sources of project funding.

The images below were provided by Freshwaters Illustrated Director and biologist Jeremy Monroe and taken by Freshwater Illustrated biologist and photographer Dave Herasimtschuk this past Spring.  These are Sycamore Creek brook trout and are progeny of Southern Appalachian brook trout fingerlings that were hatched and raised at the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout hatchery in 1993 and 1994.  The hatchery and project produced a wild naturally reproducing population of Southern Appalachian brook trout that still thrives today in Sycamore Creek.

(click on the images to enlarge)

Since February of 2010, the U.S. Forest Service, Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, and other federal, state, and private partners have been working together to develop a pilot proposal for restoring Southern Appalachian brook trout using the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery as a core component. Building on previous successes the primary objectives of the new pilot project and partnership are:

1. Expand the development of existing propagation protocols to provide for culturing Southern Appalachian brook trout in a self-contained recirculation system.

2. Evaluate the feasability of utilizing the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery as a model that might be applied at other intererested hatcheries throughout the Southern Appalachian brook trout distribution range.

3. Identify high priority watersheds for Southern Appalachian brook trout restoration consideration within operational proximity of the Tellico Hatchery.

Collecting spawning brook trout

During early Fall adult spawning brook trout from a Southern Appalachian source population are collected and taken back to the Tellico Southern Appalachian brook trout hatchery. The anticipated number of females needed should be from 25 to 50. A 6 to 8 inch female brook trout should produce around 160 total eggs. The goal is to collect 4,000 to 8000 eggs from a population/system. A cooperative agreement with the Southern Appalachian Backcountry Horsemen Club will assist with transporting the adults out to hatchery trucks. SABH will also assist with transporting fingerlings back to the stream for stocking. By May, the expected number of fingerlings that survive to 3 inches should be around 1,500 to 3000. In order to retain their wild traits, human contact will be minimized as much as possible. Whle in the hatchery and during the grow out stage, fingerlings will also be converted to live foods as soon as they are able to forage on appropriate size plankton and invertebrates such as daphnia, rotifers, etc. This would hopefully provide fingerlings with a competitive advantage once they will be required to forage on natural foods. The target stocking rate once the fingerlings are stocked into the target restoration stream is 2,000 per mile. With 3 incubation and grow-out systems in the hatchery, it is estimated that 2 to 3 streams could be restored each year.

During winter before rainbow trout have had a chance to spawn their numbers will be reduced – not eliminated – by electrofishing. Although the goal is to remove as many rainbow trout as possible, recent studies have shown that rainbow and brook trout will co-exist. These studies have further shown that rainbow and brook trout are not capable of displacing each other unless a natural or manmade event disrupts the balance between the two. Additional studies have shown that in years of heavy flows these will tend to benefit rainbow trout and in years of drought this will tend to benefit brook trout. This may be a consideration that needs to be factored into planning. 

The pictorial below demonstrates how rainbow trout population reduction and Southern Appalachian brook trout restoration are completed within a stream system:

A typical stream system would be occupied entirely by rainbow trout. First order tributaries (single blue lines) do not provide enough suitable habitat for salmonid survival)

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The upper most tributary supporting rainbow trout would be electrofished first.
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The tributary where rainbow trout were reduced would then be replaced with 2000 three-inch Southern Appalachian brook trout fingerlings per mile.
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The rainbow trout removal/SA fingerlings stocking procedure would be repeated in all the uppermost tributaries working downstream.
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Once upper primary tributaries have been restored to Southern Appalachian brook trout and adequate populations and year class structures exist, the mainstream tributary would then be restored as well completing restoration of the watershed.

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There are several advantages this procedure affords:
  •  No chemical treatments to remove rainbow trout would be required.
  • No adverse impacts to the environment would need to be considered.
  • Southern Appalachian brook trout fingerlings are conditioned to be a part of the competative advantage process.
  • The environmental analysis would be minimal and project approval and implementation would be quicker.
  • One hatchery operating 3 systems could restore 5 miles of stream per year.
  • The existing Tellico hatchery is designed to be a prototype and provides the opportunity to develop necessary protocols and procedures.
  •  After a few years of successful restoration, other state and federal hatcheries throughout the Southern Appalachian brook trout range could partner in the initiative as well.
  • Annual operating cost are manageable. For one hatchery with three systems the estimated cost is $18,000 but may be cheaper at established hatcheries.
Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery Partners To Date:

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Next:  A Project Status Report On the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery 

During the last few decades beginning in the 1980’s, partnerships between state and federal agencies along with conservation organizations have worked together to restore Southern Appalachian strains of brook trout in the Southern Appalachians. Although by the 1970’s Southern Appalachian strain brook trout had dissapeared from the Nolichucky watershed, today 7% of the historical brook trout habitat in the watershed now contains SA brook trout. Restoration is a slow and labor intensive process and it can take decades to restore only a few streams. It is likely that similar challenges are being realized throughout the primary river basin watersheds in the Southern Appalachians.

Current and Future Threats to Southern Appalachian Brook Trout

The work to restore the Southern Appalachian brook trout is hugely important. As an indigenous species it is our regions only native salmonid. The recreational opportunities it affords sportsmen from all over the United States and the economic benefits to the area are many. It’s contribution currently and in the future as a valuable water quality indicator in our upper high elevation watersheds is significant.

Compared to the size of the Southern Appalachian Region, viable Southern Appalachian brook trout populations that currently exist throughout the Southern Appalachians are few and fragmented. It is important to consider options that have the potential to increase population distribution and reduce fragmentation. This increase in distribution from both a regional perspective as well as by watershed, prepares the sub-species to be in a better position to survive current and future threats. Increasing population distribution for recreational and economic purposes aside, as threats such as drought, floods, climate change, acid precipitation, angling pressure, exotic salmonid encroachment on stressed SA populations occurs, the means to mitigate these impacts will be important.

Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery (click to enlarge)

 In 1991 the Tellico Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Hatchery was constructed as part of a cooperative pilot project between the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, Trout Unlimited, and the U.S. Forest Service to determine if Southern Appalachian Brook Trout could be spawned, hatched, reared, and stocked as fingerlings to restore Southern Appalachian brook trout populations. Funded with a grant from the FishAmerica Foundation, the hatchery was completed in the summer of 1991 and placed into operation that Fall.  In 1991/92 approximately 700 fingerlings were produced from 45 adults and stocked into Meadow Branch in April of 1992. During 1992 and 1993, the first captive propagation protocols for culturing Southern Appalachian brook trout were produced by TWRA staff when 40 Southern Appalachian brook trout adults were successfully spawned and 102 fingerlings were stocked into Sycamore Creek in April 1993. 

A Sycamore Creek Southern Appalachian Brook Trout (click to enlarge)

A repeat stocking of 703 fingerlings into Sycamore Creek in 1994, created the foundation for the restoration of Southern Appalachian brook trout in Sycamore Creek. Today, the stream continues to support a healthy wild naturally reproducing population of Southern Appalachian brook trout that did not exist prior to this project.

Next: Building on Success – A Long Term, Economical Proposal For Conserving And Restoration Southern Appalachian Brook Trout Populations.

Citico Creek Fisherman (click to enlarge)

It is important to point out that a major component of  the coldwater sportfishery that sportsmen enjoy today in the Southern Appalachians would not exist were it not for naturally reproducing rainbow trout and state and federal rainbow and brown trout stocking programs. There are many, many thousands of miles of cold and cool water streams, tailwaters, and reservoirs in the

Rainbow Trout - Oncorhynchus mykiss

Southern Appalachians that brook trout are not indigenous to and the water quality and habitat have not improved enough to support the species. Considering the difficulty in raising Southern Appalachian strain brook trout in hatcheries, their distribution outside their historical range has not occurred.

Brown Trout - Salmo trutta

 The economical and recreational opportunities rainbow and brown trout provide to the Southern Appalachians is profound and contributes significantly to its residents enjoyment.  Often times they can be valuable indicators of water quality and habitat conditions as well.



Next:  Limited Recovery of Southern Appalachian Brook Trout and Present and Future Threats.

Stream crossing (click to enlarge)

Until the 1970’s environmental compliance policies at the state and federal levels were very limited in the United States.  Although most of the broad scale destruction to Southern Appalachian watersheds had ceased, there was still many poor land use practices from road construction, clearcutting, land development, farming practices, coal mining, etc., that still continued to occur from the 1940’s to the 1960’s and 70’s.  During this period Southern Appalachian brook trout population distribution continued to decline and much of this range reduction took place in the species last stronghold – the upper headwaters of watersheds.

 The chronological pictorial sequences below demonstrate how Southern Appalachian brook trout were displaced over the period of time from the 1880’s to the 1970’s:

In the 1880’s all 2nd and 3rd order stream habitat within a watershed of the primary river basins throughout the Southern Appalachians would have been capable of supporting Southern Appalachian brook trout as determined by the yellow stream reaches below.

1880's (click to enlarge)

  By the 1940’s Rainbow trout introduced from the Sierra Nevada mountains would occupy the larger 3rd order streams and Southern Appalachian brook would be confined to 1st and 2nd order headwater tributaries. 

1940's (click to enlarge)

 During the 1960’s poor land use activities in the headwaters such as clearcutting, mining, road construction, land clearing, etc. occur with no stream protection in place to protect 1st and 2nd headwater tributaries.

1960's (click to enlarge)

During the 1960’s headwater tributaries are no longer capable of supporting Southern Appalachian brook trout and thus Southern Appalachian brook trout are forced to move downstream or perish. 

1960's (click to enlarge)

By the 1970’s headwater 1st and 2nd order tributaries begin to recover and rainbow trout expand upstream and now occupy all former Southern Appalachian brook trout habitat throughout many watersheds in primary river basins throughout the Southern Appalachians.

1970's (click to enlarge)

By the 1970’s there are no remaining populations of Southern Appalachian brook trout in the Nolichucky River watershed.  Remnant populations of Southern Appalachian brook trout existed throughout the Southern Appalachians but distribution was very limited and populations are fragmented and isolated.

1970's distribution of Southern Appalachian brook trout in the Nolichucky River watershed.

It is important to point out that rainbow trout did not outcompete the Southern Appalachian brook trout. Instead, rainbow trout were able to become firmly established by taking advantage of an unoccupied biological niche that Southern Appalachian brook trout were extirpated from decades before.  Presumably then, It is highly likely that where established populations of Southern Appalachian brook trout might exist, it would be difficult for rainbow trout to displace them. 

During the 1960’s and 70’s federal policies designed to protect wildlife and improve habitat and water quality were passed by Congress to regulate and improve the environment.
•Multiple Use – Sustained Yield Act – 1960

•Wilderness Act – 1964

•National Environmental Policy Act – 1969

•Endangered Species Act – 1973
•National Forest Management Act – 1976
• The Clean Water Act – 1972
Next – Rainbow and Brown Trout: A Part of the Southern Appalachian Culture Today.