Saving an ancient fish in modern times
Surrounded by vast northern Maine wilderness, Big Reed Pond sits peacefully on a mountaintop. A single cabin hides between the conifers that line its banks. The nearest town is 48 miles away.
Cabin owners Igor and Karen Sikorsky operate Bradford Camps, a guiding company that flies anglers and other outdoor enthusiasts to prime, remote fishing spots via their Cessna 172 floatplane.
Around the time that the Sikorskys took over the camp, something started to go very wrong at Big Reed.
“When we took over in ’96, almost everyone went to Big Reed Pond to go fishing — it was so good,” Igor Sikorsky said. “By 1998, two years later, nobody went there because whenever you went there you never caught a fish.”
It was more than just not catching fish. The fish were disappearing.
One in particular: the Arctic charr, a fish found in just one state in the Lower 48 — Maine.
Though not quite dinosaurs, charr, also known as blueback trout, were the first fish species to colonize Maine waters when the glaciers receded over present-day North America. They now exist in only 14 lakes and ponds in the state.
Big Reed Pond — one of those lakes — was under threat. Charr had survived thousands of years just to face rainbow smelt, a fish native to some waters in Maine, but illegally introduced into Big Reed Pond. Smelt caused charr numbers to plummet, competing with them for food and feeding on newly hatched charr.
“It was terrible. A large part of the value of this business that we bought was the fact that Reed Pond was a successful fishery,” Sikorsky said. “That was many of our guests’ favorite pond to fish in the whole world.”
Though the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife had been managing charr populations since the 1960s, the threat of rainbow smelt kicked their efforts into high gear, beginning a 10-year process to reclaim Big Reed Pond.
Frank Frost, fisheries biologist with Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, led the charge against smelt in Big Reed Pond.
He had overseen charr management and conservation since 2000 and was witnessed to the sudden decline of Arctic charr in Big Reed Pond.
At this point, it wasn’t enough to just try to increase charr numbers. Without removing smelt all together, the charr population would inevitably fall again.
Frost and his team decided on a total reset of Big Reed Pond: a reclamation.
Aquatic reclamation involves removing unwanted fish species from a water body, like the illegally introduced smelt, and then restocking it with desired fish species, like native Arctic charr and brook trout. At Big Reed the removal process involved a plant-based product called Rotenone, which impacts the way that fish use oxygen in the water.
Before biologists eradicated the smelt and restored the pond fishery, they had to make sure there would be enough charr to support a healthy population. The state partnered with a local hatchery to rear charr for later reintroduction.
But even this first step posed challenges. They needed to catch as many of the few remaining charr as possible to begin the rearing process.
It took four years. And in all that time, they were able to catch only 14.
The second challenge was transportation.
The long hike up to the pond cuts through the largest old growth forest in New England and the fish wouldn’t survive the long trek out.
“Time was of the essence,” Sikorsky said.
So they forewent the trail and took to the sky.
Aided by helicopters from the Maine Army National Guard and the Sikorsky’s floatplane, those lone 14, the sole future of charr in Big Reed, were flown to the hatchery where they would reside while biologists cleared the pond of the unwelcome visitors.
“We actually didn’t lose a single fish in the flying process,” Sikorsky said.
Then, in October 2010, it was finally time to reclaim Big Reed. Thousands of pounds of gear, Rotenone, state staff and volunteers were flown in.
It took several days. State biologists needed to eradicate rainbow smelt from every inch of Big Reed Pond.
And they did. Since the reclamation, smelt have not been found at Big Reed Pond.
The following summer, hundreds of hatchery-raised charr, with direct bloodlines from Big Reed, were reintroduced to the pond. This continued for three consecutive years in hopes of carrying on the legacy of this ancient fish by producing a wild charr spawn.
It Takes a Village
The large-scale operation came with a lot of uncertainty — as well as a lot of partners to ensure its success.
Frost noted the important roles of Bradford Camps, the University of Maine, The Nature Conservancy, as well as the Maine Army Aviation Support Facility in Bangor and the Presque Isle High School Aquaculture Facility. Some funding for hatchery efforts came from the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.
“With these really complex, long term projects, you just can’t stand alone,“ Frost said.
Critical funding for this project came through the Dingell-Johnson Sport Fish Restoration Fund administered by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. These funds support state fish and wildlife agency partners to restore and manage sport fish for the benefit of the public, including rare sport fish species like the Arctic charr.
“The project wouldn’t have happened without Sport Fish funds,” said Peter Bourque, former Director of Fisheries for Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife.
These funds are generated in part through a tax on fishing equipment and boating fuels, and help to support sportfish management and restoration throughout the country.
“It was money well spent by the anglers who bought their fishing rods,” Sikorsky said.
In recognition of the restoration, the American Fisheries Society presented the department and Maine DIFW fisheries biologist Frank Frost with their annual Sport Fish Restoration Outstanding Project award in 2017.
“When you have the benefit of collaboration and planning, you have more control over the outcome,” said Francis Brautigam, the current DIFW Director of Fisheries. “Proactive conservation allows for out-of-the-box thinking, and the ability to pursue strategic and collaborative solutions to complex issues.”
The outcome was a win for wildlife and people. A species once destined for the federal endangered species list was determined to be stable — even increasing.
Faith, Reward, and Relief
Last summer, success materialized at Big Reed.
Frost and his son, Noah, were out on the water on a warm June day, pulling in nets, looking for evidence that charr had successfully reproduced in Big Reed. Then they spotted something.
“I knew it was a wild fish as soon as it came out of the water,” Frost said.
Small, about 10 inches, pale silver with a tell-tale blue back, and — most importantly — hatched naturally in Big Reed, this charr was a symbol of triumph.
After so much time away from home while working at Big Reed, Frost recounted how meaningful it was to have his son with him that day. Noah recently started the same undergraduate program Frost completed 30 years prior, carrying on the family legacy: fisheries biology, at the University of Maine.
“I didn’t have to explain how important this fish was; he knew,” Frost said.
The Arctic charr is one of more than 185 fish, wildlife and plants in the eastern U.S. that have recovered, been downlisted, or did not need listing under the Endangered Species Act, thanks to coordination with public and private partners. The effort to conserve at-risk wildlife and recover listed species is led by the Service and state wildlife agencies in partnership with other organizations. Our use of conservation incentives and flexibilities to protect wildlife, reduce regulations and keep working lands working has drawn bipartisan support from Congress.