New research finds more genetic diversity in Adirondack trout

(NCPR) – Wild trout is one of the most prized fish species in the Adirondacks, but also one of the hardest to catch, in part due to its declining numbers in recent decades.

Zachary Mattson, a reporter with the Adirondack Explorer, wrote an article in the current issue of the journal about the history of wild trout in the park and what new research has discovered about the species’ future.

Zachary Mattson: There are historical accounts of early fishermen dragging trout left and right from streams and ponds throughout the Adirondacks. The Adirondacks are really a perfect habitat for trout, they love these kinds of cool water streams we have all over the place. So, I think everyone who has studied this believes that trout, historically, were common throughout the Adirondacks.

Emily Russell: You have a line in your article that is a really long list of things that have threatened the survival of wild gorse trout in the garden. Not just poaching, but a host of other things. I wonder if you could put them all in some sort of outside. Give me an overview of the threats to trout.

Brook Trout Gallery at the Wild Center. (Photo: Wild Center, Creative Commons, some rights reserved)

Mattson: Yes, trout is one of those species that is very sensitive to environmental changes and can indicate challenges. Acid rain was a huge problem, obviously, throughout the Adirondacks. The acidification of the water had a devastating effect on the trout. A large survey of lakes in the 1980s found that by the end of the 1980s, there were at least 40 lakes identified as having lost their total trout fish population. These were lakes that were examined in the 1970s and found fish, and by the late 1980s, there were no fish.

Just as things like cutting down trees have had a huge impact, it reduces habitat, and it also heats water when you lose tree coverage and cause more runoff and sedimentation. The construction of dams throughout the park, hundreds of them, creates this warmer volcanic water rather than the gushing currents they like. What kind of development, all fishing, there have been non-native game fish that have been put into lakes in every direction all over the Adirondacks that are out to compete or eat trout. So yeah, they’ve had a lot of challenges and they’re still hanging on.

Russell: And now including climate change, right?

Mattson: the correct. There’s a federal study suggesting that if, globally, we continue the carbon emissions path we’re on now, there could be enough warming that trout could lose all of their habitat in the Adirondacks by the end of the century. So, yes, the climate change challenge is really an existential challenge for the Adirondack trout.

Hunters and members of the Trout Power gathered over the weekend to collect genetic samples at Great Camp Sagamore in June 2022. (Image via Adirondack Explorer)

Russell: So there has been a recent effort to study the park’s trout populations. Tell me about Trout Power and what they found in their research.

Mattson: Trout Power is a non-profit organization made up of volunteer fishermen who go out to various locations in the Adirondacks and collect thin clips – they catch a fish and clip a little fin from its tail, then put that into a vial. Within that tiny thin clip, they could send it to a lab to run on that fish’s genetic information. And then the researchers could study — does this contain the genetics of the fish that have been stored or does it have a genotype indicating that it has more unique DNA than an original strain that has been around for longer. So really, for the first time, researchers are beginning to get a better sense of just how widespread the genetic diversity of different breeds of trout is throughout the park. And I think it goes beyond what people might have previously understood in terms of how much diversity there really is in terms of the genes of these fish.

Russell: What does this new research on the genetic diversity of wild Adirondacks trout say about the future of this population? How sensitive is their future, and how optimistic are researchers and hunters about the survival of wild Ghadeer trout?

Kurt Gerka and Alex Gatch tend to a trap net to monitor trout populations in a lake in the fall of 2016.

Mattson: I think their future is still very sensitive. And there are much larger trends at play. But understanding the genetic diversity of the fish here now tells researchers that the higher the diversity, the more likely it is that some of these fish strains will be able to survive warm weather and warming patterns and what have you.

The researchers hope that if there is a great deal of diversity, and that is protected from storage, these other threats, if you restore the flows so that there is more habitat for these fish to depend on, if you create access by removing barriers to cool the headwaters – if you do These kinds of things, plus you have this pre-existing variety, some of them might not be able to, but some of them might not. Understanding this can also open up different paths for new conservation strategies. So the diversity is hopeful and I think it offers some sense that they might be able to survive what’s coming for them.

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