Pictured above is a 15″ native brook trout. The fish species is currently facing threats in Maine from warming water temperatures and logging. Allen Wicken

REGION — The Rangeley Lakes Heritage Trust and the Maine Mountain Collaborative hosted a virtual symposium on Climate Change in Maine’s Mountains on Oct. 26 and 27. A repeating message among guest researchers was the need to increase awareness and conservation of Maine’s riparian zones.

These zones are the buffer ecosystems that border lakes, streams and other surface waters such as floodplains. Riparian zones protect surface waters by providing a habitat for plants that prevent erosion and filter sediment into larger bodies of water. These zones also regulate water temperatures which benefits many amphibians and fish such as brook trout.

“The Maine Climate Assessment identified riparian zone conservation as the high priority and observed that 85% of vertebrates in Maine use a riparian zone at some point in their life cycle,” Trout Unlimited (TU) President Charles Gauvin said over Zoom. “Strangely however, there is really not much more than a whimper about riparian zone conservation in the draft climate plan, so we can take this as an important dimension that needs to be addressed in the climate plan and elsewhere.” 

For the past four years, Maine’s Climate Council has been working on a state-wide assessment of how climate change will affect the economy and the environment. The assessment will also include plans to address these changes. The Council’s Climate Action Plan will be submitted to Governor Janet Mills and the State Legislature on Dec. 1, 2020.

“It’s going to get warmer, precipitation patterns are going to change probably in ways that increase both flood intensity and drought intensity,” Maine Brook Trout Project Director of TU Jeffrey Reardon said. “Increased air temperatures will drive increased water temperatures which will be more stressful for fish that we know are already stressed.”

According to the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife (MDIFW), Maine sustains the most extensive populations of wild, self-producing brook trout in the United States. There are more than 1,200 lakes and ponds populated by trout in Maine with 60% of these bodies of water containing wild trout.

Gauvin suggested a minimum protective border of 300 feet on each side of surface waters in riparian zones, but said more research needs to be conducted on the effects of development and climate change on these areas.

He emphasized that most likely, successful conservation efforts would take place not on a state level, but through a network of non-profits and land trust groups and by educating landowners and loggers.

With the majority of Maine’s water systems that serve wild brook trout privately owned by commercial foresters, speakers at the symposium recognized a need to reach the private sector. Part of the symposium’s goal was to gather New England researchers to collaborate on their climate change findings and brainstorm ideas for increasing conservation efforts.

One idea was to offer carbon credits to landowners who would maintain a protective buffer in these riparian zones. Another thought was to start a more grassroots effort in educating loggers and landowners of fragile ecosystems that are facing even more threats from warming temperatures and further human development.

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