In the 28 years since the Clean Water Act became law, our nation has come a long way toward ridding our lakes and rivers of pollution. The days of industry and sewers spewing waste directly into our rivers and lakes are largely over. Granted, we are still tackling the problem of nonpoint source pollution, the run-off containing excessive nutrients and sediments that cannot be traced to any one user. Overall, however, water quality has improved tremendously.

Why then do we still have a long way to go toward restoring our fisheries? Nationwide, many of our fisheries are worse off than they were 28 years ago.

What we've learned is that fish need more than just clean water. They also need habitat.

Fish need habitat for food, cover, and spawning. We can clean Vermont's waters, stock our rivers and lakes, and regulate fishing to bolster suffering populations, but the fish will not be able to sustain their populations naturally without the necessary habitat to support them through their life stages.

Consider landlocked salmon. While salmon fishing in Lake Champlain has been good, the former wild river runs of these fish have not been restored. Most major rivers flowing into Lake Champlain today have dams that prevent salmon from reaching their spawning grounds. If Vermont's waters are to support healthy and self-sustaining fish populations, then habitat conservation must be a priority -- in our rules, our practices, and our daily actions.

The Vermont Fish and Wildlife Department's top priority is the conservation of all species of fish, wildlife, plants, and their habitats for the benefit of Vermonters. The Department seeks to meet its mission through several means:

  • Department biologists testify and comment on Act 250 development applications to ensure the protection of fish habitat by requiring establishment of riparian and shoreline buffers and limits on water withdrawal. During the past five years, the Department reviewed approximately 8,000 land and water projects and protected about 130 miles of river and lake frontage.
  • Members of the fisheries staff participate in the regulatory process for hydroelectric dam re-licensing to ensure adequate stream flows, fish passage, and reservoir water level management to meet fish habitat needs. In the past five years, such improvements have been implemented at seven dams within the Lake Champlain Basin, and nine others are currently under review. For example, recently issued state and federal permits for a dam on the Otter Creek now require the dam to operate as run-of-the-river, requiring the same amount of water flowing to the project from upstream to be released downstream. Flows will not be manipulated, and the impoundment water level will remain stable. In addition, the way the two powerhouses are deployed has been adjusted to enhance the habitat used by walleye, lake sturgeon, salmon, and other fish species for spawning and feeding.
  • Department of Fish and Wildlife employees participate in several other permit review processes that involve construction in and along Vermont rivers and lakes. Staff members work with the Agency of Transportation and town governments to ensure fish passage at culverts and also assist the Department of Environmental Conservation in assessing the impacts of stream channel instability, dam safety operations, and lake and pond treatment measures on aquatic life.
  • The Fish and Wildlife Department provides information about fish habitat needs through publications, youth conservation camps, teacher training, and meetings with local watershed and sporting groups. Staff members also advise local officials about how to protect and restore their communities' aquatic resources through projects such as stream bank restoration.
  • Department officials work with the Vermont Agency of Transportation and town governments to ensure fish passage at culverts and to assist the Department of Environmental Conservation in assessing the impacts of stream channel instability on aquatic life.
  • The Department Commissioner, division directors, and program staff testify before the legislative committees on issues concerning fish habitat, such as stream gravel mining, water withdrawals, and water quality laws.

Healthy stewardship of Vermont's fisheries habitat is not simply the responsibility of the Fish and Wildlife Department or the Agency of Natural Resources. All Vermonters can take actions that will improve the ability of fish populations to sustain themselves naturally.

Learn about habitat.

What do fish need for habitat? Think of the fish species that you enjoy catching. You know where to find them, right? What is it about that part of the river or lake that meets their habitat needs? How does this habitat support them during their life stages as an egg, fry, and juvenile? What about their spawning needs?

Become a steward.

Do you own land that includes or borders fish habitat? Consider managing your land to protect and improve fish habitat. One of the most important things you can do for fish habitat is to leave a naturally vegetated buffer strip of 50 to 100 feet on stream banks and lakeshores. Buffer strips shade streams, keeping water temperatures cool. They also contribute leaves and woody debris for food, provide cover for both fish and aquatic insects (an important food source for many fish), and reduce the amount of nutrients, toxins, and sediment entering a stream or lake. Vegetation stabilizes stream banks and shorelines, preventing excessive erosion important for both fish habitat and your property value.

Get involved.

There are many groups in Vermont working to protect fish habitat. Join and offer your knowledge, experience, and helping hand. Working with others is a great way to learn and to get a lot done. If you can't find a group in your area, consider starting one. Involvement can range from hands-on work in your favorite river to activism in the political or regulatory arenas.

Spread the word.

Share what you learn with others.