While the vast majority of people have no idea whatsoever of their existence, there is a population of wild, native Brook Trout on and around Cape Cod. These trout thrive in the small streams of our area, but there is one thing that makes them different from every other Brook Trout. In a handful of small, hidden spots, some of these Brookies decide to get a bit adventurous and head out into saltwater. These Sea-run Brook Trout, called Salters, are a gem to the few who know of their existence but have recently come across a large obstacle in their already impressive comeback. We had a chance to talk with Geoff Day, the Executive Director of the Sea-run Brook Trout Coalition about what exactly is happening and what we as anglers can do.

Photo: Chrisophe Perez

Flylords: What are Salters? 

GD: Ecologically, like all brook trout, (brookies are the canary in the coal mine) they are bioindicators of clean, cold water, and the unique life history of salters represents they have access to both the oceans and estuaries, and the upper spring-fed headwaters. These fish use a habitat that is as close to what the brooks and streams were like pre-European Contact. We call them America’s “first sportfish” because Colonial American literature tells who fished for them – John Rowe, born 1715, was one of the financiers of the Tea Party. He fished for salters. Daniel Webster, born in 1782, was also a famous salter fisherman. There also is an indication that there were sea-run brook trout on the table at the first Thanksgiving, but we’ll never know for sure.

Salters live in coastally-connected cold-water streams, from Long Island NY to the Canadian border and beyond. Of course, if the stream is dammed or altered by agriculture or pollution of any type, the salters will be gone.  Long gone in some cases.

So we know we’ve really altered the environment whenever the brook trout are gone.

How do we know they were there? Fortunately, there is literature to help. Absent that, science might be able to help.  

My great love of brook trout is because they are so incredibly elegant and beautiful, they’ve got a plucky kind of personality, and they know far more about ecology and the environment than anyone will ever know. Plus they inhabit special places that come from a far-off time.

The map of the area surrounding Red Brook and the proposed development area

Flylords: Can you give us the rundown of what is going on?

GD: The short version is this; a powerful and wealthy development group, called the Notos Group, has been pushing for years to develop a nearly one-thousand-acre plot of land in Wareham MA, quite near the headwaters of Red Brook. If they get their way on this land, we might be telling the Red Brook salters “Goodbye” in the coming years.

Notos Group is calling this a “Hospitality, Recreation and Entertainment” zone. The cold and clear waters of Red Brook mark the boundary between Wareham and Plymouth, MA, and it runs 4.5 miles from White Island Pond to the Lyman Reserve. From there it flows into Little Buttermilk Bay, which is only a short skip to the western end of the Cape Cod Canal. Fortunately, Red Brook is surrounded by a small protected riparian zone that protects the brook and the sea-run brook trout, which are still on the rebound due to some 3.5 million dollars and tens of thousands of Trout Unlimited volunteer hours invested over the last two decades. Numerous agencies and nonprofits got together to do this, notably, the Trustees that own the Lyman Reserve, and Mass Fish and Wildlife that own the Red Brook Wildlife Management Area, as well as Century Bog, which marks the topmost end of the headwaters.

Red Brook also acts as a model for others who are interested in doing stream/habitat restoration. The story of the success of Salter restoration in SE Massachusetts has already spread far and wide throughout the community, and it continues to spread.

What’s going to happen if this rezoning goes through? There’s no clear indication of plans (as their plans for the Casino/Racetrack option was sidelined), but the rezoning effort could support many things, and our concern is the “City” they are planning to build will likely withdraw so much water from the aquifer, that Red Brook’s headwaters could run dry. Before it does so, the development will likely add a new source of thermal pollution, additional water pollution, decreased dissolved oxygen. This type of development also increases the concern for “forever chemicals” and things of that nature. Locally, we are seeing measurements of the new emerging contaminant of concern known as PFAS to be going “through the roof” in other salter streams and this is absolutely one more concern that we have to keep our eyes on. 

While this is potentially quite bad news for the trout, it is also extremely bad news for the two species of herring that use the brook for spawning in the spring. More broadly, there are also some 20 state-listed or endangered species that live in the specialized Pine Barren habitat such as the Eastern Box Turtle and the Eastern Hog-Nosed Snake, both known species-of-concern as listed by the State of MA.

Photo: Geoff Klane

FL: What can we as anglers do to help?

GD: Wareham Residents – you need to Vote No on # 1 to protect this special habitat.

Non-Wareham residents, if you wish to write a letter-to-the-editor or to the selectmen, that’s probably our best cause of action.

TU National is helping us to raise money to help with the fight and the link is here:

https://go.tulocalevents.org/saveoursalters

Anglers everywhere need to know that while it is true that restoration works, it can all go to naught in the blink of the eye. The Sea Run Brook Trout Coalition and other organizations like the local TU Chapters monitor as many of the Cape salter streams that we can, and we had the sad news of learning that one of the more exciting (and less spoken about) rivers has winked-out, on our watch. Efforts to restore the population with wild transplanted fish from a nearby population to the Santuit River have failed as well. How has this happened? We don’t know, but after years of analysis, the current theory has to do with excessive water-withdrawal, possibly combined with damage from toxic algal blooms running down the river.

So we now know these fish need ongoing protection. We not only need to take dams out and add woody structures to our re-covering rivers. We also have to watch that they aren’t pumped out to provide water for super-sized developments.

One more reason why I love brook trout; is because we have figured out how to turn back the clock on these special streams, and brook trout are the vector that helped make this happen. Turning back the clock also means our efforts are allowing fish access to forage food, spawning areas, and places to shelter from predators and springs where they can protect themselves from warm summer water. All of this means the population can also grow. After centuries of degradation and abuse, we can actually help fish to grow, both in size and numbers.

But to me, there’s far more to it than this, we’re also training and growing a population of conservation-minded anglers.  Some may become fisheries biologists, stream hydrologists, or land managers who specialize in buying up key properties. You never know who you’ll find on the river, or who they will become.

Cover photo also courtesy of Geoff Klane

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