Susquehanna takes the lead on the Richard King Mellon Foundation-funded Freshwater Research Initiative.

Netting Electric Results in River Research

Fall 2015 Issue

One late August morning, biology major Desmond Edwards ’16 donned waders to go fishing in a small creek two miles south of Selinsgrove. But instead of using rod and reel, the senior from Carbondale, Pa., was “electrofishing.” Strapped to his back was a $10,000, 20-pound battery pack sending 200 volts through the water via a coiled wire trailing behind him and a diamond-shaped metal wand he waved underwater in front of him.

He was temporarily shocking whatever fish lurked in a thigh-deep pool, causing them to surface so they could be identified and counted as part of the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s Unassessed Waters Initiative. Over the past five years, Susquehanna faculty and students have assessed hundreds of Susquehanna River tributaries for key fish and insect species as part of the program.

Brandishing fish nets alongside Edwards were Jonathan Niles, director of the university’s one-year-old Freshwater Research Initiative (FRI), and Mike Bilger, a former adjunct professor and research scholar who is now an FRI-funded aquatic ecology research scientist.

A half-mile west of where the stream empties into Penns Creek, not far from the creek’s confluence with the Susquehanna, the trio’s chief targets were brown and brook trout. Their presence-and the presence of aquatic insects that the trout eat, such as caddisflies, mayflies and stoneflies-are all indicative of high-quality, cold-water streams that qualify for greater state protection.

As Edwards electrified the water, tiny blacknose dace began bobbing to the surface. The researchers also began netting slightly larger fish-mostly creek chubs and central stonerollers-which they quickly set free.

Then Niles netted an even larger fish, a beautifully speckled 8-inch brown trout, an adult that he placed into a water-filled bucket for further analysis (and eventual return to the stream). A few minutes later and nearly 100 meters upstream, a shaded, shallow pool yielded a much smaller fish-a 3-inch long brown trout.

“Yes,” Niles exclaimed, peering into his net, “a young of the year.”

“The Golden Fleece!” exulted Bilger, pleased because evidence that wild trout are reproducing in a particular stream is a key criterion for triggering state water-quality protection.

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