Five years ago, facing what they felt would be the eventual collapse of the arctic charr population in Big Reed Pond, Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife biologists started working on a drastic plan.
As many of the charr — also commonly called blueback trout — as possible would be captured and transported to a hatchery. The pond would be “reclaimed,” essentially wiping the slate clean by putting a fish-killing chemical called Rotenone in the water.
Later, hatchery-raised bluebacks, descendants of those captured fish, would be reintroduced.
On Thursday, biologist Frank Frost, who has shepherded the project through the ensuing years, proudly helped stock the remote northern Penobscot County pond, which is located in T8 R10, with its new generation of hatchery-produced charr.
“The fish looked great going in. Just how we planned it,” Frost said. “The fish really seemed to react to the new water well and didn’t look like [they felt] any stress at all.”
The fish, which ranged from 7 to 9 inches long, were raised at Gary Picard’s private hatchery, Mountain Springs Trout Farm, in Frenchville.
Over four years, DIF&W personnel successfully trapped or caught about 12 blueback trout, which served as the brood stock. Frost said more fish have been held back at the hatchery for use in the future.
“We had 1,100 of those fish from that year class [that was released on Thursday] and we’re holding onto 500,” Frost said. “About 300 will go in this fall when they’re bigger and we’ll hold back about 200 as a safety net,” in case the newly reintroduced trout fail to naturally reproduce as hoped.
The plight of Big Reed Pond’s blueback trout began several years ago when smelts were illegally introduced in the pond, according to biologists. The smelts competed with the bluebacks for food, and adult smelts ate juvenile bluebacks. The population of charr began a downward spiral.
Last fall, convinced that the 12 fish that they had caught marked the last of the bluebacks, the pond was chemically reclaimed. Frost said at the time that no blueback trout were observed floating after the reclamation, but about 40 brook trout were found. Of those, about 15 were saved and taken to a hatchery, where they spawned.
Frost planned to take 800 of those brook trout fry into Big Reed Pond’s tributaries on Friday.
Arctic charr are rare and Frost said the charr that can be found in Alaska and northern Canada are not from the same lineage as the fish that exist in this state. Maine is the only state in the continental U.S. with blueback trout. In all, just 12 lakes or ponds in the state hold the charr, according to the DIF&W.
“That’s why we undertook [this project],” said Frost, who called the effort the largest pond reclamation the state has ever performed. “We could see where the population was going, we could see that we were eventually going to lose it down the road, and we stepped in at pretty much the last hour to restore them.”
Frost said the reclamation and reintroduction effort was complicated because of Big Reed Pond’s remoteness.
“The biggest problem with it was just the logistics of it,” Frost said. “Everything has to be flown in and out and there’s no easy access to [Big Reed Pond] other than a hiking trail or a float plane.”
On Friday, Frost planned to carry brook trout fry in a backpack and release them into tributaries. On Thursday, float planes were used to transport the blueback trout.
“We bagged them with oxygen, just a very tight bag, and flew them in those bags inside cardboard boxes,” Frost said. “They seemed to do very well. It’s just a short flight, a four- or five-minute flight, and we’d get them into the boat and right out where we wanted to stock them.”
While pleased with the progress at Big Reed Pond thus far, Frost said other challenges exist.
“The next-biggest hurdle that we have is successful reproduction in the wild right there at Big Reed,” Frost said. “So that’s the next big milestone that we’re looking forward to, and that will be two or three years down the road.”