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Maine's trophy arctic char may hold a climate change key

UMaine and University of New Hampshire researchers are looking at arctic char as a bellwether to how other cold-water fish will adapt amid climate change.

ORONO, Maine — University of Maine graduate student Brad Erdman and his classmate, Julia, left Orono on Halloween morning. This wasn't for a typical adventure on the 31st, as the two students headed to Floods Pond in Otis to go fishing.

The fish they were after, however, is part of a 20-year study in conjunction with the University of New Hampshire, to learn the ways arctic char have adapted in Maine—more than 1,500 miles from their northern counterparts.

Arctic char were one of the first freshwater fish species to arrive in Maine after the glaciers of the ice age melted 10 thousand years ago.

"There were skyscrapers of ice covering all of Maine ... The arctic char were some of the first fish to inhabit these lakes ... Just to think that some of those fish are around today blows my mind," Erdman said.

After a 10-minute boat ride, the duo hoisted a netted trap over the bow and carefully put spawning arctic char into buckets. The two slowly counted around two dozen fish—what normally would look like a trophy haul for a reactional fisherman.

"It's so fascinating to me ... They spent most of their time in really deep places of the lake," Erdman said. "They're rare and it's nice to keep rare things around."

The two students eventually made it back to the shore of Floods Pond, which just so happens to be the water supply for the city of Bangor.

Using the warehouses at the water facility, the team then sets up a station to anesthetize each char. Once anesthetized, the fish is tagged, weighed, and photographed.

Working in tandem, the duo worked fast knowing each fish contributes to the study being done by UMaine and UNH for the last 20 years. 

"It's fascinating to have this database ... Each one of those gets a microchip, you can see how fast they grow, anything you can imagine we have access to," Erdman said.

The reason they're studying the char, Erdman explained, is because the char living in Maine have been separated from their northern counterparts for thousands of years, and they are showing differences in breeding, eating, and lifestyle.

The researchers said this is due to warming waters in Maine compared to the arctic circle.

"In a warming climate, we really want to focus on those cold-adapted species to see how they're being affected by a warming climate ... All these things are interconnected and it's understanding all those connections between the species," Erdman said.

Erdman said the research should help them learn how other cold water species of freshwater fish, like lake trout, can adapt in the next century as waters continue to warm in Maine.

"I grew up on it ... It's a big passion of mine and the lake is in my veins," Jim Fickett, owner of Honey Badger Guide Services on Sebago Lake, said.

Fickett grew up fishing on Sebago Lake and said the water is not icing out as much as it used to, and the lake trout he fishes for are starting to behave differently given the elongated warm periods.

"The fishing has changed dramatically in the last 10 years," Fickett said. "They're eating perch, they're eating bass, where they used to strictly eat rainbow smelts."

Fickett said he's seen lake trout in just a few dozen feet of water come to feed, whereas they normally sit in colder bottoms of the lake.

"The lake trout can find the temperature water where they like to be in, but the question is, is there food there?" Fickett pondered.

Back at Floods Pond in Otis, the researchers are finishing up tagging the char. 

Michael Kennison, a professor at UMaine, said the char could unlock a key to understanding how other species of trout and salmon could adapt to a future of warmer waters in Maine.

"These arctic char populations are the canary in the coal mine for this part of the world ... What we see with these arctic char might help us make predictions for these species for years to come," Kennison said. "Many of these cold water species are an important heritage of Maine ... Being able to understand the pressures a population can face going forward ... can help preserve these populations."

In terms of adaptations, the arctic char in Maine are changing their eating habits, according to the Kennison, along with their breeding cycle as well.

They hope the same studies can be seen with species such as lake trout, rainbow trout, and brown trout.

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