Being a Fish is About More Than Swimming in Clean Water
The next time you go fishing on one of Vermont's brooks, rivers, or lakes, shift your
focus for a moment from what's around you to what's below you. What is life like under the
water - life as a fish?
Over the last 28 years, since the passing of the Clean Water Act in 1972, our nation
has come a long way towards cleaning up our waters. The days of industry and sewers spewing
forth waste directly into our rivers and lakes are largely over. Granted, we are still
tackling the problem of non-point source pollution in our waters, the overland run-off
containing toxins and excessive nutrients and sediments that cannot be traced to any one
user. Overall, however, water quality has improved tremendously. Then why do we still
have a long way to go to restore our fisheries? Nationwide, many of our fisheries are
worse off than they were 28 years ago! Some of Vermont's fisheries are doing well; others
have declined. With all this clean water they should be thriving, right! Well, it's not
that simple - fish need more than clean water, they need HABITAT!
Habitat. We all need it, fish need it - for food, cover and spawning. We can put all
the fish we want into the rivers and lakes, but they will not be healthy nor able to naturally
sustain their populations without the necessary habitat to support them through their life
stages. We can regulate fishing to help suffering fish populations, but without habitat
improvements they will not recover. We can clean their water, but without habitat the fish
will not benefit and a stream or lake's carrying capacity will be reduced. Consider
landlocked salmon in Lake Champlain. While salmon fishing in the lake has been good,
the formerly wild river runs of these fish have not been restored. How many of the major
rivers flowing into Lake Champlain can you think of that are without dams? Salmon that can't
get to their spawning grounds don't reproduce. If Vermont's waters are to support healthy
and self-sustaining fish populations, then habitat conservation must be a top priority - in
our rules, our practices and our day-to-day actions.
The Vermont Fish & Wildlife Department's top priority is the conservation of all species
of fish, wildlife and plants and their habitats for the people of Vermont. So, what does the
department do to conserve fish habitat?
SO, WHAT CAN YOU DO TO CONSERVE FISH HABITAT?
- We testify and comment on Act 250 development applications to ensure the protection of fish habitat by requiring establishment of riparian and shoreline buffers and limits on water withdrawal. Over the past five years, the department reviewed about 8,000 land and water projects and protected about 130 miles of river and lake shoreline.
- We participate in the regulatory process for hydroelectric dam re-licensing to ensure adequate stream flows, fish passage and reservoir water level management to meet fish habitat needs.
- We also participate in several other permit review processes that involve construction in and along Vermont rivers and lakes.
- We inform and educate the people of Vermont about fish habitat needs through publications, youth conservation camps, teacher training, and talking with local watershed and sporting groups.
- We advise local officials about how to protect the aquatic resources in their towns.
- We provide technical support to local groups in aquatic habitat restoration efforts.
- We evaluate department-owned property for fish habitat conditions and work to restore degraded areas.
- We work with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and town governments to ensure fish passage at culverts.
- We assist the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation in assessing the impacts on aquatic life of stream channel instability, dam safety operations, and lake and pond treatment measures.
- We testify in the Legislature on issues concerning fish habitat, such as stream gravel mining, stream water withdrawals and water quality laws.
As the sun sets on the Green Mountains and you tally your catch for the day, reflect on what
it took for those fish to reach adulthood. Life as a fish has never been easy, but it could
be a lot better than what they have to work with now. Catching that trophy fish has never
been easy, but it too could be a lot easier than it is now. How do we ensure healthy and
sustainable fisheries in Vermont? HABITAT - learn about it, get involved, spread the word.
Because fishing is about more than clean water.
- Learn about habitat. What do fish need for habitat? Think of the species of fish you
enjoy catching. You know where to find them, right? What is it about that part of the river
or lake that meets the habitat needs of these adult fish? What other types of habitat do fish
need to support them during their life stages as an egg, fry, and juvenile? What about their
- Become a steward. Do you own land that includes or borders fish habitat? Consider managing
your land to protect and improve fish habitat. One of the most important things you can do for
fish habitat is to leave a naturally vegetated buffer strip of 50 to 100 feet wide on streambanks
and lakeshores. Buffer strips shade streams, keeping water temperatures cool, contribute leaves
and woody debris for food and cover for both fish and aquatic insects (an important food source
for many fish), and reduce the amount of nutrients, toxins, and sediment entering the stream or
lake. Vegetation also stabilizes streambanks and shorelines, preventing excessive erosion
(important for both fish habitat and your property value!). And remember, what goes into the
streams and rivers of Vermont eventually ends up in Lake Champlain, Lake Memphremagog, the
Hudson River, or the Connecticut River. So if there are good things going on upstream, there
will be good things going on downstream.
- Get involved. There are many groups and individuals in Vermont working to protect fish
habitat. Join up - offer your knowledge, experience, and helping hand. Working with others
is a great way to learn and to get a lot done. Can't find a group in your area, or can't find
a group working on the stream or lake you want to protect? Start one! Involvement can range
from hands-on work in your favorite river to activism in the political or regulatory arenas.
- Spread the word. Take what you've learned or what you already know about fish habitat
and educate others. Get others involved. Many hands make light work.
For information on assessing watershed and stream health:
View the Vermont ANR Stream Geomorphic Assessment Protocols Website