Climate Change and Riverine Cold Water Fish Habitat in the Northeast: A Vulnerability Assessment Review

Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences & the National Wildlife Federation
Posted on: 7/18/2022 - Updated on: 8/10/2023

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If we are to anticipate and mitigate the potential impacts of climate change on organisms and their habitats it is vital that we understand their relative vulnerabilities. In this analysis, we attempt to estimate the likely vulnerability to climate change of riverine habitat for cold water fish in the Northeast. These fish are recreationally, economically, and culturally important species that also can be viewed as indicators for the entire riverine cold water ecosystem.

As historical context, much of the riverine cold water fish habitat in the Northeast has been lost due to anthropogenic stressors, particularly habitat destruction and reduced access to spawning areas by the installation of dams. This has been most marked in the southern part of the habitat’s range in the northeastern states, where losses may be as high as 50%. Climate change confronts this habitat with a new and important stressor. As air temperatures continue to warm, waterways may also warm beyond the physiological tolerances of cold water fish such as brook trout, brown trout, and other salmonids. Also, the projected increased frequency and severity of extreme events (floods and droughts, for example) may pose significant risks to this habitat type.

Applying a vulnerability assessment framework, in this review we consider the exposure, sensitivity, and adaptive capacity of cold water fish. The main conclusion of this review is that riverine cold water fish habitat in the Northeast is indeed vulnerable to climate change, but may not be as vulnerable as earlier studies may have suggested. Most habitat loss due to warming in the Northeast may occur in the southern part of the habitat’s range (for example, Virginia and West Virginia) and at lower elevations (for example, coastal plain cold water streams from Massachusetts north into Maine). Further north and at higher elevations, riverine cold water fish habitat is likely to persist for substantially longer than earlier studies had suggested.

The review also discusses continuing scientific uncertainties as well as mitigation measures that can be taken to reduce the impacts of warming on cold water fish habitat.


Manomet Center for Conservation Sciences and the National Wildlife Federation (2013). Climate change and riverine cold water fish habitat in the Northeast: a vulnerability assessment review. A report to the Northeastern Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies and the North Atlantic Landscape Conservation Cooperative. Manomet, Plymouth, MA.

Affiliated Organizations

North Atlantic LCC partners work together to identify common science needs, shared scientific capacity, and information and coordinate natural resource conservation actions across the region. The North Atlantic LCC is part of a network of 22 Landscape Conservation Cooperatives, which was launched in 2009 by the U.S. Department of the Interior, primarily through the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and U.S.

The National Wildlife Federation is America's largest conservation organization, with more than 6 million members supporters and an affiliate network in 52 states and territories. The National Wildlife Federation’s mission is to “unite all Americans to ensure wildlife thrive in a rapidly changing world.”

For 40 years, Manomet has worked to build a sustainable world based on healthy natural systems that support human and wildlife populations. We are a trusted leader in the non-advocacy use of science for problem-solving, and have a long history of working collaboratively with entities that have the capacity to leverage change.

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