April 03, 2018

New research from Susquehanna University’s Freshwater Research Initiative finds that brook trout populations suffered most as a result of natural gas development if their habitats were already made fragile by other land uses. They also predicted future loss of brook trout if natural gas development continues unabated.

Jonathan Niles, director of Susquehanna’s Freshwater Research Initiative, is a co-author on Brook trout distributional response to unconventional oil and gas development: Landscape context matters, published in the latest edition of the journal Science of the Total Environment.

Niles, along with researchers from West Virginia and Loyola universities and the U.S. Geological Survey, assessed the role of landscape context, or pre-existing natural habitat quality, in predicting the response of brook trout to natural gas development.

Researchers compiled 2,231 brook trout collection records from 2006 to 2013 from the Upper Susquehanna River Watershed. Niles and his students, through their work with the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative, provided some of the data.

Researchers found that the streams most impacted by natural gas development were already endangered due to pre-existing land uses such as agriculture, residential and commercial development, or historic mining.

The additional stress of natural gas development, researchers predict, will further decimate brook trout populations.

“What this tells us is that we’re dealing with ecosystems that are already challenged,” Niles said. “Our results could be used to guide regulatory and conservation decisions by identifying streams in which additional stress will likely result in an adverse result for brook trout populations.”

Some of the samples examined by researchers were collected from streams pre- and post-natural gas development.

Of those samples, 13 percent lost brook trout after the occurrence of natural gas development.

“Some of the best things we can do from a landscape context is to better situate roads, limit duplication of pipelines that are crossing streams and reduce the size of well pads,” Niles said. “This is especially the case where the landscape has gone from forested to more impervious surfaces, as those changes can impact brook trout.”

Susquehanna’s Freshwater Research Initiative provides field-based measurements of the ecological health of the Susquehanna River watershed to state environmental agencies, conservancies, nonprofits and the public; and collaborates with more than 45 nonprofit groups, government agencies, and colleges and universities within the Susquehanna River and Chesapeake Bay watersheds. The FRI trains Susquehanna University students for careers in environmental research and conservation in both field and laboratory settings.