By David Cole and Jack Reynolds
Most people who live in Westport believe that it is a very special place. Each has his or her own special feature — Horseneck Beach and its dunes, gorgeous …
By David Cole and Jack Reynolds
Most people who live in Westport believe that it is a very special place. Each has his or her own special feature — Horseneck Beach and its dunes, gorgeous sunsets (and sunrises), boating on the River and Buzzards Bay, the strike of a Striped Bass or Brook Trout, Osprey diving for a fish, and on and on. But there are some very special aspects of Westport about which many are unaware. One of these is that Westport has six of the nine “cold-water streams” on the South Coast of Massachusetts and Cape Cod that currently are breeding grounds for a remarkable species of brook trout.
The Salters or Sea-run brook trout is an anadromous species, which means it spends part of each year in saltwater and part in freshwater. These trout breed in the freshwater streams and head for saltwater in November immediately after spawning. They run back from the sea to the freshwater in April and May. While in the saltwater environment they grow more rapidly due to the more abundant food availability. Sea trout weigh from one to three pounds, whereas few of the trout that remain in freshwater streams exceed half a pound.
Salters brook trout are very sensitive to water temperature, which is why they summer and spawn in cold-water streams. These streams are mainly supplied by springs and groundwater which maintains a temperature of about 50 degrees Fahrenheit. When dams or ponds are introduced into cold-water streams, they raise the water temperature, and if the temperature reaches 70 degrees or more, the Salters brook trout cannot survive.
Construction of dams on many streams in New England in the 18th and 19th centuries to provide power led to severe depletion of these fish species. In the 20th century, with the advent of electricity, many of these dams were abandoned and partially removed to prevent downstream flooding if the dams collapsed under storm surges or melting snow. But the no longer dammed rivers and streams did not return to their original healthy condition because of encroachment of modern development in the form of roadways, houses and cleared woodlands, lawns and fields that fed warm and polluted storm water, surface water runoff and wastewater into the streams.
Some communities have gone to great lengths to try to restore their cold-water streams. In Wareham a 20-year effort to restore Red Brook is nearing completion with the removal of a final dam last year and some ongoing efforts to clear flumes and other obstructions this year. The numbers of Salters brook trout captured and tagged by State Fish and Wildlife officials in Red Brook increased seven-fold over the past decade.
As a recent report by Trouts Unlimited concluded, based on the experience of Red Brook and the Quashnet River on Cape Cod, “continued decline of Salter brook trout populations is not inevitable.”
They went on to say that “of all the coastal streams on Cape Cod and in southeastern Massachusetts that once supported sea-run brook trout, only nine Salter streams are known to still support proven sea-run populations.
Of the nine Salter streams in Massachusetts, only three streams, the Mashpee River, the Quashnet River, and Red Brook are sufficiently protected by surrounding conservations lands. The other streams are extremely vulnerable to various types of land development. The Westport River tributaries, in particular, with their dependence upon fragile, headwater wetlands, are at risk. The Westport streams are characterized by low flows and high water temperatures during summer. Thermal pollution from poorly designed water retention basins, lawns, driveways and roads along with well water withdrawals from supporting aquifers, will most certainly, if allowed, sound the death knell for Westport’s Salter populations.”
The six cold water streams in Westport in which breeding populations of sea-run brook trout have been found in recent years are: Angeline Brook and its tributaries, Kirby Brook, Snell Creek, Lyons Brook, Pierce Brook and Bread and Cheese Brook. There are a few other brooks that have native trout but have not yet been shown to have Salters. The State Division of Fish and Wildlife is continuing to sample these brooks and streams in Westport and may find that more of the cold-water streams do contain Salters. Any stream that in this day and age still has a native population of Salter brook trout is astounding and Westport still has more than any other town.
Another fascinating characteristic of the Salter brook trout, that has recently been verified by research in Canada and Southeastern Massachusetts, is that populations of anadromous brook trout are genetically river specific. A study of these trout in five streams in Massachusetts and Long Island, by Brendan Annett, showed that the trout population of each stream was genetically unique to its stream and readily distinguishable from the trout of other streams, even when the streams were in close proximity. Even more surprising, the trout in the study were distinct genetically from domestic brook trout, though thousands of hatchery trout had, in the past, been stocked into some of the streams. “The message was clear: Salter brook trout populations in the southern part of their range are stream specific, genetically unique fish that, in all likelihood, cannot be replaced.”
The presence of these unique species of fish in the cold water streams of Westport has important implications for any future activities affecting the Westport River and its tributary streams. This includes the Massachusetts Estuaries Project committed to reducing nitrogen loading in the river, storm water projects designed to limit direct flows into the river, dredging projects to deepen ponds on tributary streams, enforcement of the Rivers Act, and establishment of buffer zones along river and stream banks. The primary consideration should be to protect the cold water streams in Westport. If any proposed projects might have adverse impacts on these streams, they should be modified to minimize the impact, or, if that is impractical or too costly, simply abandoned. If potential projects would have a beneficial impact of maintaining low water temperatures, improving access for fish migration, or reducing pollution, they should be supported. This will be in the best interest not only of sport fishermen but also protection of the genetic diversity of these special fish, and the preservation of Westport as a very special place.
David Cole was Past-President of the Westport River Watershed Alliance. Jack Reynolds was President of the Westport Fishermen's Association.