Courtesy of Cornell University/Dan Josephson

Cliff Kraft '75 and Jason Robinson M.S. '08, haul fishing lines to collect samples in the Adirondacks.

February 1, 2023

Cornell Adirondack Fishery Program Receives State Grant for Climate Adaptive Stocking 

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A longstanding private partnership between land stewards and Cornell University’s Adirondack  Fishery Research Program has received additional backing from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation, building upon a 70-year research partnership in the Adirondack region.

The Cornell-affiliated program, headed by Prof. Cliff Kraft, natural resources and the environment, and Prof. Peter McIntyre, ecology and evolutionary biology, is optimistic that implementing an evolutionary approach to portfolios in fish stocking — the practice of raising fish for release into an ecosystem — can enhance fishing opportunities while also alleviating the pressure on management in response to climate change.

The Cornell team studies fish populations in relation to environmental changes in the Adirondack basin. The new initiative builds on undergraduate thesis work by Nick Hudson ’20, which demonstrated that widely stocked strains of brook trout differ in their tolerance for warm water, something they are traditionally opposed to. 

“In the summer and fall, many lakes become ‘stratified,’ which means that a separation forms between the warmer surface waters and the colder bottom waters due to differences in water density, temperature and oxygenation,” McIntyre said. “Trout end up being excluded from both the surface and bottom layers, therefore compressing their habitable zones. We call this an oxythermal squeeze.”

The capacity for fish to respond adaptively and persist despite ‘oxythermal squeezing’ is precisely what the Cornell-DEC project is looking to address. 

The new project, Climate Adaptive Stocking, seeks to utilize an evolutionary perspective by prioritizing strains of endemic trout that can thrive despite increasingly challenging climate conditions. The Cornell team is conducting stocking experiments on twelve private lakes, as well as two public lakes selected with DEC partners. The overall goal is to maximize self-sustaining populations that can support fishing opportunities, ideally using ‘heritage’ strains of trout that are native to the Adirondacks.

“Enhancing the climate resilience of these fish populations will serve the interests of anglers, hatchery managers and taxpayers all at once,” McIntyre said. In addition to fulfilling multiple shareholder needs, the project addresses a range of sustainability goals, including maintenance of native biodiversity, population resiliency and stabilizing water quality.

The diversity within the brook trout species provides ample opportunities for biologists to select strains that may respond optimally to increasing climate pressures, according to McIntyre.

The NYS DEC is providing financial backing as well as access to three ‘heritage’ strains of brook trout originally sourced from Adirondack lakes.

“[C]limate resilience is rarely considered. That’s why our partnership with DEC is so important,” McIntyre said. “We have an unprecedented opportunity to recommend a portfolio of strains that we expect to perform well across a range of future lake environments.”