Green Lake in Hancock County is one of only 12 native Arctic charr waters remaining in the contiguous United States, all of which are in Maine. It is also one of just four native landlocked salmon waters in Maine, and the only water in the country where these two rare species occurred naturally.
Green Lake is a native rainbow smelt water as well, one of only two waters where Arctic charr and smelt coevolved. It empties into Graham Lake, a manmade impoundment on the Union River, which is a historic Atlantic salmon water.
To say Green Lake is unique from a native fish species assemblage standpoint would be accurate. To say it has the most unique species assemblage in Maine, and possibly the Northeast, would not be unreasonable.
The idea that three exceedingly rare coldwater fish coevolved in the watershed makes Green Lake a natural resource of state, regional and national significance.
Over a period of just a few years, the Maine Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife has referred to the Arctic charr of Green Lake as native, nonnative, native again, not “firmly established” and “likely endemic.”
This flip-flopping came to a head early this year when DIF&W submitted a written position as part of a dam relicensing application for Graham Lake that again referred to the Arctic charr as being of unclear origin.
“The FLA (Final License Application) should be clarified that it has never been firmly established that Arctic charr are native to Green Lake as Artic [sic] charr were stocked in the late 1800’s; however, Green Lake does now support a wild population of Artic [sic] charr,” DIF&W Regional Fisheries Biologist Greg Burr said.
The Maine chapter of the Native Fish Coalition formally rebutted Burr’s claim using prior correspondences to make their case. This was the second time NFC has had to intervene on behalf of the rare Arctic charr of Green Lake, and for the same reason.
Once publicly challenged, the official position was that the biologist was acting on old data and the population was “likely” native.
“Yes the department does acknowledge that (Arctic) charr in Green Lake are likely endemic,” said Francis Brautigam, DIF&W’s Director of Fisheries and Hatcheries.
While long classified as a native population, DIF&W’s recent attempts to draw the origin of Green Lake’s Arctic charr into question is based on subjective and inconclusive data. While both the lake and its outlet appear to have been stocked with Arctic charr fry from Floods Pond in the late 1800s this, in and of itself, is not enough to say that the charr are introduced.
Stocking over wild native fish was not uncommon at the time, nor is it unheard of today. It is the case at Moosehead Lake (nonnative salmon over native brook trout and lake trout), Pierce Pond (nonnative salmon over native brook trout), and other waters.
In fact, DIF&W is stocking nonnative lake trout over native landlocked salmon and Arctic charr in Green Lake as we speak.
It is also important to note that charr fry have a very low survival rate, a position that DIF&W has supported in the past. Even if charr were stocked, they more likely have failed to take than to have naturalized.
In fifteen attempts to introduce Arctic charr in Maine, only one or two waters were successful. New Hampshire failed in 15 of 15 attempts.
Data collected by Canadian biologist Dr. Louis Bernatchez and subsequently analyzed along with other available data by University of Maine biologist Dr. Michael Kinnison, concluded that the charr in Green Lake are more closely related to those found in Wassataquoik and Gardner Lakes than Floods Pond, discounting the idea that they came from the latter.
The data presented to DIF&W by Kinnison resulted in the department reversing its position and referring to the population as native again in 2019, after being declared nonnative in 2018.
“It is our belief now that the Green Lake Arctic charr population is indigenous and did not originate from stocking,” Brautigam said in 2019.
Nothing has changed from 2019 to today, yet Burr recently implied that there was still doubt.
This distinction, native versus introduced, is critically important. If allowed to be referred to as nonnative, there is no pressure on DIF&W to do the right thing in regard to the Arctic charr of Green Lake. At minimum, that is to suspend the nonnative lake trout stocking that is putting these rare fish at risk.
Lake trout are the same species blamed for the demise of Arctic charr in New Hampshire and Vermont. They are also contributing to the likely loss of Arctic charr in Bald Mountain Pond in Maine — a story for another day.
It’s time we stopped playing cat-and-mouse with this important rare wild native fish population. To attempt to downplay the ecological value of these fish by calling their origin into question without sound scientific backing is a disservice to these rare fish, this unique body of water, and the people of Maine.