SU students electrofishing a stream

Researchers on the River - Jon Niles, Ph.D

This article was featured in our April 2012 newsletter.

The PA Fish and Boat Commission, the agency charged with protecting and enhancing our state’s aquatic resources, has found a helping hand in Susquehanna University biology students, and their professor, Dr. Jonathan Niles.

With over 45,000 waterways waiting to be documented for wild trout populations (~4,500 streams have been documented) the Commission has quite an overwhelming task. Collaborating with Dr. Niles and other local colleges, universities, and conservation groups has helped the Commission, provided valuable research experiences for students, and has resulted in successfully protecting fragile streams from development.

“The wild trout stream designation is important since it affords these waterways and wetlands the highest protection from development by the state Department of Environmental Protection,” says Niles. “They consider this information when issuing permits and this is particularly important when we think about development pressures that the state is currently facing – development from urbanization and natural gas extraction.”

Niles and his team of students were initially to assess just 20 streams, but thanks to support from the Foundation for PA Watersheds and the Degenstein Foundation, were able to survey over 80 streams in the Loyalsock and Muncy Creek watersheds for fish population data as well as stream macroinvertebrates and algal communities in these areas. “When we are in the field, we take basic water quality data, and survey trout populations using electrofishing which stun the fish and allow them to be caught without harm,” reports Niles. After identifying the species, measuring, weighing, and sampling stomach contents to assess its diet, the fish are returned to the stream unharmed.

Research and The Flood
“This work was done in the summer of 2011, and when tropical storms Lee and Irene went through in September we realized it was critical that we already had good baseline data on fish populations, diets, macroinvertebrates, and algal communities as the Loyalsock and Muncy Creek watersheds were greatly impacted by flooding. These events have given us a great scientific opportunity to study how these streams and populations recover.”

Dr. Niles and his students have returned for post-flood surveys along five of the streams that had good trout populations before the flooding. “We’ve noticed initial reductions in populations. Are they short-term losses or long-term losses? How long will it take trout and aquatic insects to recover? We don’t know that yet, but we are continuing to record the data learn from this event.” Susquehanna University students John Panas and Sam Silknetter have the opportunity to presenting their findings at the Society for Freshwater Science’s national meeting in Kentucky this spring.

Impact on The River
With regards to the Susquehanna River, Dr. Niles explains that studying and protecting upstream tributaries is critical to the downstream health of the river. “Streams are really a network of filters for the river since everything drifts and flows downstream.  If we can trap sediments, nutrients, and stop erosion in the headwaters, then more miles of downstream water will benefit from the improvements. Increasing tree canopy in the headwaters can keep streams cooler, and that can lead to less of a temperature increase downstream, thus cold-water fish like trout have a better chance to thrive in both places.”

You can read more about the surveys Dr. Niles and his students have conducted here

To learn more about the PA Fish & Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initative, download a program report here.

Photos courtesy of Dr. Niles