New report details how climate change threatens Virginia fishing

VCN release climate change report.

TU’s Seth Coffman, second from right, explains restoration work being done on Mossy Creek to help trout survive rising temperatures. He is joined by Nathan Lott and Jacob Powell from VCN, Graham Simmerman from VCTU, and a reporter from the Harrisonburg Daily News Record.


Climate change is the most serious threat to America’s freshwater fish and urgent action is needed at all levels to preserve key species and their habitats, according to a new report released by the National Wildlife Federation in partnership with Trout Unlimited and others.

Swimming Upstream: Freshwater Fish in a Warming World details how climate change is already putting many species of freshwater fish at risk, creating an uncertain future for America’s fishing traditions and risking many jobs sustained by the angling and fish-processing industries.

“President Obama has challenged the nation to cut the carbon pollution that is driving climate change,” said Nathan Lott with Virginia Conservation Network, of which the Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited is a member. “The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has the authority to act. EPA should act and finalize the first-ever limits on carbon from new and existing power plants by 2016.”

Freshwater fish are very sensitive to water temperatures and species such as trout can only thrive in cold and cool waters. Temperatures even a few degrees above a species’ needed temperature can dramatically increase stress, make them more susceptible to toxins, parasites and disease and can deter growth and threaten survival, especially as more warm water species move into warming waters.

Climate change is warming our lakes, rivers and streams causing:

  • Habitat loss for many cold-water species
  • Exacerbation of existing stressors, such as habitat loss, polluted water, invasive species and disease
  • Increased competition from warmer-water species

“Fishing is a long-established, favorite pastime for many Americans. Landing the big one is the dream of many Americans, from a youngster hooking her first brook trout in Dry River to an angler making a dream trip to the Yellowstone River,” said Seth Coffman, who coordinates TU’s Shenandoah Headwaters Home River Initiative. “Recent studies predict that by the end of this century, cold-water fish habitat could decline by 50 percent across the U.S.  We already have 147 freshwater fish species listed as threatened or endangered. We don’t need more. What we need is leadership to confront climate change and steps taken today to improve the resiliency of our existing cold-water habitat for the future.”

Sportsmen on the front lines of conservation are already seeing changes where they fish:

  • More extreme weather events —especially more intense droughts, heat waves and wildfires — can increase fish mortality
  • Shorter winters with less snow and ice cover can shift stream flows and water availability in the spring and summer
  • More frequent droughts reduce stream flows and kill streamside vegetation which helps to cool streams. Less water during droughts reduces available habitat and the remaining water warms faster, leaving fewer cool or cold-water refuges for fish

“From 2006 to 2011, fishing in the U.S. increased 11 percent.  As the planet warms, family fishing and fishing for a living are threatened,” commented Graham Simmerman, chairman of the Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited.  “Whether it’s the local bait and tackle shop or a cabin rental business, fishing is an economic driver in many communities across the U.S.  Here in Virginia, in 2011, freshwater fishing generated over $450 million in 2011.”

Climate change is taking an economic toll.  The 27 million Americans who fish every year spend $27 billion annually. On average, each angler fished 17 days and spent an average of $934. The decline in fishing days for cold-water fish could cause a projected annual national economic loss anywhere from $81 million to $6.4 billion by the end of this century, compared to 2009, say experts.  Communities that rely on winter ice fishing are already seeing downturns.

Swimming Upstream outlines actions needed to address climate change and ensure a thriving fishing tradition:

  • Cut climate-disrupting carbon pollution.  Because carbon pollution is driving climate change, the Environmental Protection Agency must continue moving forward with its authority to limit carbon pollution and finalize the first-ever limits on carbon from new and existing power plants by 2016.
  • Transition to cleaner, less-polluting energy. Move to more wind, solar, geothermal and sustainable bioenergy.
  • Capitalize on and restore natural systems. Enhance nature’s ability to absorb and store carbon, preserve and restore habitats like forests and other natural lands. Adapt to enhance the resiliency of freshwater aquatic habitats, as climate change is already occurring.
  • Use non-structural, nature-based approaches. Pursue approaches like wetlands restoration and floodplain protection in lieu of reservoirs and manmade structures to minimize impacts on fisheries.  Direct development away from sensitive aquatic habitats and climate-vulnerable areas.

Read the report at NWF.org/FishAndClimate.

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The Virginia Council of Trout Unlimited is made up of representatives of the state’s 16 TU chapters.