USFWS Coastal Program benefits fish and fishing in Freeport, Maine 

  • IMPORTANCE OF ESTUARIES: Estuaries are crucial ecosystems, with over 40% of Americans living in estuary regions and almost 47% of the U.S. GDP coming from coastal areas. Additionally, nearly 70% of American seafood harvests rely on estuaries.
  • USFWS COASTAL PROGRAM: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program has partnered with various organizations for decades to protect and restore coasts, with a focus on estuary health and resilience, particularly in the face of climate change.
  • DAM REMOVAL PROJECT: A dam removal project in Frost Gully Brook near Freeport, Maine, supported by the USFWS Casco Bay Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited, and others, removed defunct dams to restore fish habitat and mitigate the negative effects of dams on stream ecosystems.
  • BENEFITS OF RESTORATION: Restoring native plants and riparian buffers along Frost Gully Brook provides shade, erosion control, and habitat for brook trout, while also sequestering carbon dioxide, thus contributing to climate change mitigation.
  • ECONOMIC IMPACT: Removing barriers like dams and restoring estuaries and streams not only benefit fisheries but also support the economy by attracting anglers and outdoor enthusiasts.
  • SUPPORT NEEDED: Partnerships between organizations, governments, and private entities are crucial for achieving conservation goals, and increased funding is needed to sustain these efforts and address climate and coastal resilience challenges.

Estuaries, the coastal intersection of rivers and the sea, are some of the most diverse and economically important ecosystems on planet earth. According to a 2021 Report, The Economic Value of America’s Estuaries, more than 40% of Americans live in estuary regions and roughly 47% of the U.S. GDP comes from our coasts. Additionally, almost 70% of America’s seafood harvest spend some or all their lives in estuaries – including salmon, blue crabs, and oysters. 

One of the key programs in place to protect and restore estuaries is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Coastal Program, a voluntary program that has built its legacy on supporting partnerships in coastal communities for the better part of four decades – working alongside private landowners, non-profits, and various government agencies to restore and protect coasts. Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE), a national alliance of coastal restoration organizations, has been a longstanding partner of the Program, working together with the Service and our various partners to support the mission of the Service and to improve the health and resilience of estuaries, particularly in a changing climate.  

An important facet of a healthy estuary is connectivity between rivers and the sea. One such project opened miles of free-flowing river upstream from the Casco Bay estuary near Freeport, Maine.  

With support from the USFWS Casco Bay Coastal Program, Trout Unlimited (TU), Freeport Conservation Trust, and other local groups completed a project which opened miles of habitat for migratory fish on Frost Gully Brook, a tributary of the Harraseeket River and Casco Bay. The groups removed three defunct dams in the Summer of 2023, and will now embark on a comprehensive stream restoration effort, including work to replant native trees and plants along the stream’s banks.

In addition to blocking fish passage, dams like those in Frost Gully Brook also raise temperatures in streams by pooling water, block the free flow of nutrient rich sediments to flood plains and downstream estuaries, and create increased flood risks to downstream communities.  

The native plant and riparian buffer restoration on Frost Gully Brook will also provide shade to the stream during the summer months, protect from unnatural erosion of stream banks, and provide habitat for brook trout and other species. These trees and plants also help mitigate climate change by naturally removing and sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Indeed, according to the Reforestation Hub, reforesting streamside buffers has the potential to sequester 10 million tons of carbon dioxide a year nationwide. 

Restoring For the Future 

The source and much of Frost Gully Brook is cold water spring influenced, which keeps water temperatures at safe levels for native brook trout; typically, less than 65 degrees Fahrenheit year-round. The newly accessible sections of river will allow these fish to migrate to traditional spawning areas as well as access cooler waters in the warm summer months. According to Keith Curley, Vice President of Eastern Conservation at Trout Unlimited, “the water temperatures on Frost Gully Brook in the hottest part of July were no higher than 66 degrees in the headwaters but warmed up to 74 degrees behind a dam downstream. Removing these dams will help to keep water temperatures within the tolerance range of brook trout.”   

“Given the naturally low water temperatures, Frost Gully Brook is already resilient to warming air temperatures as climate change increasingly threatens our nation’s cold-water fisheries. This made it the perfect site for dam removal and restoration”, said Mark Taylor, Eastern Communications Director at TU. 

The reconnected stream also presents anglers with new opportunities. Aside from the resident brook trout, Frost Gully Brook is also home to a subpopulation of salter brook trout. The Salters, although genetically identical to resident fish, travel freely between fresh and saltwater and tend to grow much larger than resident brookies. Sea-run brook trout are unique to New England and Canada where cold-water streams flow directly into the ocean rather than traversing through warmer coastal plains, such as those in the Mid-Atlantic and Southeast United States.  

“Brook trout need clean, cold water to survive, so they can tell you a lot about the health of a watershed. If brook trout are doing well, then it’s a safe bet that other fish and wildlife are doing well too” said Mr. Curley, again. “This is especially important along the coast, where development can harm water quality and watershed health. If we can keep strong populations of brook trout in coastal streams, we will know we’re taking good care of our watersheds.” 

Fishing and the Economy 

Maine is a well-known destination fishery with a long-standing tradition and allure that attracts anglers from all over the world. In addition to salter brook trout, the state is home to some of the last remaining populations of wild landlocked and anadromous Atlantic Salmon in the United States. According to the American Sportfishing Association, more than 281,000 anglers spent upwards of $191 million fishing in Maine in 2021.  

Outdoor recreation accounted for just under 4% of Maine’s total gross domestic product (GDP), putting it in the top five states in the U.S. in value of outdoor recreation added to state GDP, according to the Maine Office of Outdoor Recreation. The state is also home to one of the largest outdoor retailers in the world, L.L. Bean, whose Freeport headquarters sit just a few miles from the Frost Gully Brook dam removal sites. 

Improvements such as dam removal and stream restoration help support this robust economic driver by offering more and more diverse opportunities for anglers, hikers, and other recreation enthusiasts to enjoy. When they come to town, fishermen and women pay for guides, equipment, lodging, food, and fuel, as well as secondary and tertiary tourism related businesses (think housecleaning, insurance, construction). In rural communities, fishing and other outdoor activities can often stand up the entire local economy. Protecting and restoring streams and estuaries, and the fish they support, has much larger ramifications for the broader region.  

Building Conservation Partnerships 

Partnerships like this between the Coastal Program, non-profits, state and municipal governments, and private partners are quintessential for achieving climate goals and protecting climate susceptible species, like brook trout.  

Since its founding in 1985, the Program has engaged more than 8,200 conservation partners to complete roughly 5,000 conservation projects, improved 600,000+ acres, and protected another 2.3 million acres of priority habitat, while supporting the down-listing of at least 15 endangered and threatened species. In 2022 alone, the program leveraged its investment to secure an astounding 9:1 match from partner funding sources.  

“Building partnerships also builds consistency which can translate to more funding, less disruption, and creates stronger long-term relationships” said Samaya Rubio, Community Engagement Associate with RAE. “The Coastal Program is more than just a funding source, they’re a convener, bringing together diverse partners to achieve common goals.”  

Despite its long track record of success and increased demand, the Coastal Program has been consistently underfunded and understaffed since its inception. Annual appropriations for this critical program have hardly increased since at least 2014.  

Beyond supporting fish passage improvements in Maine, the Coastal Program works diligently in 24 priority estuaries across the country to secure shorelines using nature-based processes, restore marsh and wetland habitats to sequester carbon and protect communities from storms and flooding, and engages private landowners, such as farmers and developers, in best practices to maintain healthy coastal ecosystems while also improving economic opportunities.  

Program staff also provide expertise, resources, equipment, historical knowledge, and create an invaluable network of local restoration and conservation professionals. These partner building efforts also help reduce redundancy and streamline restoration.  

Increased funding for the Coastal Program, along with the already established $175 million in funding from the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law through NOAA to remove fish passage barriers (part of a larger allocation $2 billion in funding for ecosystem restoration that supports fish passage), can go a long way in securing the health and viability of our favorite game fish – creating opportunities for more people to enjoy outdoor pursuits as well as providing for local economies.  

Without adequate funding, though, the Program is unable to maintain these relationships and thus critical projects are left in limbo due to either lack of resources or expertise, and oftentimes both. Legislation is currently moving through both Chambers of Congress (H.R. 2950 and S.1381) that would strengthen the coastal program’s financial footing and, for the first time since its founding, provide Congressional authorization.  

If passed, the strength and success of the Program can grow exponentially, providing another tool to reach our climate and coastal resilience goals, and providing countless recreational opportunities for anglers not just in Maine but throughout the United States.  

Rob Shane is the Senior Manager of Communications for Restore America’s Estuaries (RAE) based in Washington, DC. He is an avid angler who can often be found searching for native brook trout in the Blue Ridge Mountains.  

Additional Resources

Mad Island: Fire Restores Prairie on the Texas Gulf Coast

To restore the prairie, you have to burn it.

A prescribed burn at Mad Island Marsh. © Ernest Love / Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

A juvenile alligator peeking out from the water in the marsh.
The truck slows as we approach another pool of water. We scan the water’s surface carefully and it doesn’t take long to find what we’re seeking. A pair of beady eyes pokes out. And another. Baby alligators.

Soon we realize the small reptiles are scattered throughout the pond, including one sunning itself on a log. And while I’ve always found adult crocodilians to be somewhat unnerving, these little ones are cute. We watch as they bob around the water, disappearing for a few seconds, only to pop up for a curious glance our way.

“Every trip here becomes a gator safari,” says Steven Goertz, prescribed fire coordinator for The Nature Conservancy in Texas, and manager of the site we’re visiting.

A juvenile alligator peeks out from the marsh. © Kenny Braun / TNC

Goertz is giving me and colleague Claire Everett a tour of the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh, a Nature Conservancy preserve on the Texas Gulf Coast. And indeed, we’ve seen a lot of alligators. Big ones, small ones, ones that “cannonball” into the water at our approach and ones that sit along the bank and watch us with indifference.

But the alligators are a side attraction; we’re here to look at the influence of fire. Fire shapes nearly every aspect of the grassland and marsh ahead of us. But unlike the gators, the signs of fire are difficult for me to see.

I live on the edge of the Rockies, where you can see traces of fire on the forest for years afterwards. The charred trees of the famous 1988 fire in Yellowstone National Park are visible to any visitor.

Here, the grasses wave in the breeze, as if it has always been this way. As if this is a pristine, untouched landscape. Goertz is here to show us a different story.

This is a picture of Clive Runnells Mad Islands Marsh Preserve at sunrise.
Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve. © Kenny Braun / TNC

A Brief History of Mad Island

My eyes kept looking up; as a naturalist, I had a lot to watch. Various species of herons, waders, ibis – singly and in flocks – lifted from the waters as we drove past. White-tailed deer trotted along the meadows and gar gulped air in the freshwater channels. In the bay, bottlenose dolphins offered quick glimpses as they surfaced.

Traveling along one wetland, we see a swimming flock of fulvous whistling ducks, a flushing flock of mottled ducks and a white-tailed hawk. Three lifer birds in a quarter mile.

This is a heading that says "It’s a wildlife paradise but it’s not untouched nature. It’s taken decades of research, hard work and direct management to restore Mad Island."

The Texas Gulf Coast prairies and marsh once consisted of 9 million acres. By the 20th century, much of that landscape had been developed, with just 2 percent of native habitat remaining.

Just 2 percent of native Texas Gulf Coast prairies remained by the 20th century. © Kenny Braun / TNC

The establishment of the Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve began in 1989, when Clive Runnells II donated more than 3,000 acres of coastal wetlands and upland prairies to TNC. The land is directly adjacent to Texas Parks and Wildlife Department’s Mad Island Wildlife Management Area, which TNC helped establish with a 5,700-acre donation.

In 1993, TNC added 3,900 acres to the preserve with critical support from the North American Wetlands Conservation Council, as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, Dow Chemical, US Environmental Protection Agency, Trull Foundation and Communities Foundation of Texas.

For the first couple of decades of the preserve’s existence, much of the conservation effort focused on restoring wetlands for waterfowl and other wildlife. The area was well-known for its importance to migratory birds, sitting at the confluence of two principal North American migration routes. For years, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center had operated a bird banding station on the preserve to study the patterns and behavior of migratory birds. These efforts are now carried on by collaborations between Texas A&M University and University of Maryland.  

But there was also a recognition that, for this landscape to naturally function as marsh and prairie, other restoration was needed.

And Goertz realized early on that to achieve that resilience would require the use of fire.

A prescribed burn at Mad Island Marsh. © Ernest Love / Texas Parks and Wildlife Department

From Raggedy to Awesome

Another flock of ducks circles overhead and I strain my eyes to identify them. My eyes continue to look up. Goertz is urging me to look down.

He’s scrunched over, brushing his hands through the plants at our feet. From the road, this looks like a sea of grass. Up close, a rich diversity of native plant species is revealed.

With the global threats impacting lands and waters, conservationists often speak of the need of rapid, large-scale solutions. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, has ambitious goals that will lead to global change. But ultimately, those goals have to touch down on the ground, in places like this. Goertz has to think about the management of thousands of acres. And sometimes, he’s looking at plants right beneath his feet.

TNC’s Steven Goertz shows author Matt Miller native prairie plants at Mad Island. © Claire Everett / TNC

When TNC acquired this property, many parts were, as Goertz puts it, “raggedy.” The ranch had been heavily grazed by cattle for decades. Brush had encroached on the prairie, reducing its diversity and its importance to wildlife.

This is a heading that says "Even on this scale, restoration can seem an overwhelming task. Removing this stand of brush, that patch of invasive species, the work could stretch out for years. Decades. But harnessing a natural process – one that has shaped grasslands for millennia – could offer faster results.”

“I’ve put all my eggs in the fire basket, and it’s made all the difference,” says Goertz.

TNC has been using prescribed fire on its lands for decades. Staff know how to coordinate a safe, controlled burn that achieves the desired ecological results. Working with partners, Goertz continues conducting fires at Mad Island.

Still, this land had not seen fire to this extent for a long time. So it needs some additional help.

The Spaces Between

After Mad Island was burned, some of the changes were quickly apparent. Other changes would escape the notice of a casual visitor; that’s why Goertz is often bent down, examining plants at the square-foot level.

“Prescribed fire isn’t just about clearing brush,” he says. “It certainly does that. But what’s really interesting is what happens in the interspaces, the ground left open by the burning. The fire increases solar contact with the soil. So much comes up in the spaces between. You get quality and quantity of native plants in ways I wasn’t expecting.”

This heading says "To give natural processes a boost, Goertz and other staff began collecting seeds from the prairie plants that grew after the burn. They then reseeded by hand in other parts of the project."

“First, you’d see circles of plants coming up around where we broadcast the seed,” says Goertz. “By year two or three, you see seed dispersion. That’s when it gets really exciting.”

© Kenny Braun / TNC

Lately, the seed collection has intensified. Staff use a street sweeper-style harvester to pull seeds off native plants and dump them in a bin. Last season, 900 pounds were harvested off 16 acres.

“There’s a lot of opportunity to increase that harvest,” says Goertz. “We can then use them on our own restoration sites or share them with other conservation projects.”

The prescribed burning is an annual effort, and one that seemingly occupies Goertz’s thoughts most hours of the day. As we walk through the grass, he’s constantly pointing. He’s showing me those little changes in topography, clumps of plants, how those plants have responded to fire.

“This place looks flat, but there’s a lot of landscape diversity here,” he says. “You see that when you’re out here, the little depressions and rises in the landscape.”

The marsh at Clive Runnells Family Mad Island Marsh Preserve. © Kenny Braun / TNC

The result of that attention to detail, that passion for the land, is everywhere around me. I can’t see signs of the fire. I can see swaying prairie grass, the birds lifting off out of the marshes, the deer trotting ahead of us. To my eyes, it looks perfect, but I know it’s not pristine.

“I can’t do a perfect replication of the native prairie,” says Goertz. “That’s not the goal. I want it to function in a resilient state. What we are finding is that when we burn at this scale, diversity is embedded in the whole system. There’s a ‘Field of Dreams’ aspect to this. Burn it, and the diversity comes.”

This article was originally published in Cool Green Science, a blog by The Nature Conservancy, on June 18, 2023 and updated on June 26, 2023.

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