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The Fly Fishing Industry in the Face of Climate Change

Last night, as the most recent display of evening Spring storm clouds closed in over the Gallatin Mountains in southwest Montana, a gathering of fly fishing guides, outfitters, citizen anglers, business owners, and local biologists gathered at the simple confines of the Lindley Center near downtown Bozeman, Montana for a somber discussion regarding the fly fishing industry in the face of climate change.

The national news headlines from earlier in the day were reporting that President Trump made the decision to withdrawl from the Paris Climate Accord upending negociated plans set in motion from the previous administration. As the Bozeman crowd settled into their folding chair seats with pizza and microbrew, Montana Wildlife Federation Climate Change Outreach Assistant Alec Underwood stood at the front of the room realizing some of his presentation slides suddenly needed updating. He along with other biologist speakers from the Montana Wildlife Federation and Fishing Outfitters Association of Montana organized the presentations to discuss how current research reflected growing scientific consensus about global climate change and how it’s repercussions would effect not only the national and state economies but also the legacy of rivers and streams throughout the West. The talks focused in on discussing current changes and trends in our fisheries and ways to protect one of the most important industries in the state against the effects of a warming climate.

How can we protect our resources and fisheries for the future? What do our rivers provide us?

To answer these big questions, Underwood highlighted three key factors to economic development that our rivers provide.

Quality of Community

Quality of Workforce

Quality of surrounding environment

Throughout the United States, the entire outdoor recreation industry brings in $887 billion dollars annually. In Montana alone, that revenue has grown to $5.8 billion statewide. From that slice of pie, the Montana fishing industry collects over $907 million dollars from angler expendatures.

While our president stated job loss as one of the reasons for pulling back from the Paris Climate Accord, Underwood said that revenue loss from outdoor industry and tourism could be greatly impacted if forward thinking action wasn’t made about the global climate issues.

Robert Al-Chokhachy of the USGS Northern Rocky Mountain Science Center in Bozeman emphasized that the impacts of shifting climate patterns are becoming more pronounced. “Spring air temperatures are rising which reduces yearly snowpack depths which then leads to having earlier runoffs in the rivers. “Summer stream flows were 35% below average from data from 1970-1990 but jumped to 69% below average from 1991-2015,” said Al-Chokhachy,”It’s the greatest snowpack decline, increasingly consistent across all streams, that we’ve ever seen in the past half century. Stream temperature is driven by air temperature.”

The biologist then asked the fishing industry crowd – Why are we concerned about cold water fish?

The process has created a biological trickle down effect.

“As a result of warmer temperatures and less snowpack, the decline in water means less holding water zones for fish survival and healthy insect populations which support those ecosystems. Hatches and spawning cycles have been happening weeks earlier than normal,” said Al-Chokhachy, ” We are observing increased effects of more invasive species and fungus outbreaks like Saprolengnia which has reduced the brown trout population in the Big Hole River by almost 50%. There is a direct corellation between Salmonoids and rising temperatures which effect their growth rates, recruitment, life history and population growth rates. The trout metabolic rates directly increase with warming temperatures.”

While the group of reseachers simply presented the data, they said the debate and ultimately the decisions of the public would be the deciding factors to make a difference to protect the resources we have.

The researchers offerred a list of best practices members of the community could do. Proactivity to help educate the public, learning and promoting clean angling practices. Community members can support local projects like habitat restoration and connectivity. Getting involved with collaborative processes (Big Hole or Bitterroot Water Forums) while supporting clean energy solutions and legislation.

Lastly, citizens can start showing up and speaking out. “If you are not at the table, then you are on the menu.”

“The question becomes…Are people willing to give up for the greater good rather than focusing on mine?,” said Underwood, “The community can forget how good we have it. It’s important to think of the future of our watersheds.”

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