The University of Massachusetts Amherst

Feature Stories

Brook Trout

Managing natural resources in the face of climate change
  • Researchers use nets to collect live fish from a stream in a woodland setting

"One of the goals of the NECSC is to conduct scientific research that is applicable to management. It's important that it be useful to people."

-Paul Damkot.

As a Graduate Fellow with the Northeast Climate Science Center (NECSC) based at UMass Amherst, Paul Damkot and his colleagues are on the forefront of working to understand the critical threats and unique climate challenges of the region and to provide managers and stakeholders with the scientific information, tools, and techniques needed to anticipate, monitor, and adapt to climate change.

Damkot studies how brook trout are affected by and adapt to climate change. As air temperatures warm, so do water temperatures. Brook trout are a coldwater species with a narrow optimal thermal range, and prolonged exposure to temperatures much outside that range is usually fatal. In addition, increased hydrologic variability associated with climate change could result in habitat loss at the upstream limits of their distribution, making climate change a large concern for their long-term survival.

"This could affect the ability of the brook trout to persist throughout its native range of the eastern United States," warns Damkot.

Under the guidance of his advisor Keith Nislow (a NECSC consortium Principal Investigator, Forest Service fisheries biologist, and adjunct faculty in Environmental Conservation at UMass Amherst), Damkot and his undergraduate assistants have been sampling brook trout at approximately 200 sites throughout the Connecticut River basin in Massachusetts and Vermont. The aim is to determine the current upstream limit of brook trout distribution, identify factors that influence this distribution, and predict how the distribution might change with increased thermal and hydrologic variability associated with climate change.

"One of the goals of the NECSC is to conduct scientific research that is applicable to management. It's important that it be useful to people," says Damkot.

Damkot’s research is especially useful to U.S. Forest Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and state biologists. Ultimately the research could inform prioritization of areas for environmental protection and habitat restoration.

“[We have] questions about climate change and how it affects the availability of habitat for eastern brook trout, our native trout species that we are concerned about,” says Nick Schmal, Regional Fish and Aquatic Ecology Program Leader at the U.S. Forest Service in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  According to Schmal, those interested in using Damkot’s work range from state and federal land management agencies to private landowners collaborating with these agencies.

Damkot’s research “builds upon what we already know and helps people focus on watersheds to do restoration work,” says Schmal. The information can assist land managers who want to know which watersheds are worth spending time and money on for restoration. The research can show managers what can be expected of these habitats in future years. 

One habitat need is to improve aquatic organism passage at stream road crossings. Damkot’s research could be used to identify upstream habitat that is most likely to be resilient to climate change, helping to prioritize culvert replacement and barrier removal. Damkot’s work is an example of science that helps resource managers adapt to the changing environment.

Climate and environmental changes are important factors to consider when it comes to the maintenance and restoration of fish habitats. Schmal believes that the work will be used throughout the NECSC region and could be applied to studying other trout species’ habitats across the United States.  

"I would like to make sure the brook trout last longer than I do, and longer than the next generation, and longer than the next generation after that. I think there is value in native species and protecting the species in their habitat,” says Damkot.

The Northeast Climate Science Center is part of a federal network of eight Climate Science Centers created to provide scientific information, tools, and techniques that managers and other parties interested in land, water, wildlife and cultural resources can use to anticipate, monitor, and adapt to climate change. Based at UMass Amherst, the consortium also includes the College of Menominee Nation, Columbia University, Marine Biological Laboratory, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri Columbia, and University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Adapted from Northeast Climate Science Center News