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Trout Unlimited coordinator discusses trout and trends

​Over the course of a decade, Hammersley Fork — a tributary of Kettle Creek in portions of Potter and Clinton counties — had jumped its bank and traveled down a stretch of road.

“People were essentially driving through a Class A trout stream,” said Kathleen Lavelle, a field coordinator for Trout Unlimited’s Pennsylvania cold water habitat program. “Trout Unlimited worked with a local contactor, DCNR, land owners and local groups to put in a channel block upstream to re-route the creek back where it belonged.”

But that left numerous species of fish trapped in a 3/4-mile stretch of dewatered road.

“My job was to move the fish. We were filling buckets with not only trout, but everything that was living in that stretch — darters, sculpins, minnows, even some smallmouth bass,” Lavelle said. “It was difficult for me and my staff — as we are used to numerating everything — but that day, we had to move quickly. We estimate that we moved more than 1,000 fish.”

Lavelle was able to make some ecological observations during the massive August 2019 fish relocation effort.

“One of the things that was really interesting was this stretch of Hammersley Fork was pretty far downstream close to the main stem of Kettle Creek, which in that area is a transitionary warm water fishery, so finding some smallmouth bass was not a surprise,” she said. “We found some really nice big brown trout, but the most dominant trout species we came across, far and beyond, was brook trout. It was pretty cool to see some really big brown trout in there that everyone gets excited about — but also to know that it was a very healthy and functioning brook trout stream, as well.”

While handling trout movement over a road is thankfully a rare occurrence in the job duties of Lavelle’s tenure so far with Trout Unlimited — she has much more experience in helping trout move under roads.

“One of our biggest pushes lately is something that when you see it, you never unsee it — the issue of culverts and road-stream crossings. Anywhere a blue line crosses under a road, it can cause a fragmented habitat, and we have been assessing thousands of culverts and aquatic organism passages,” she said. “We try to get in and reconnect a passageway, replacing structures with smarter elements that keep things connected better. Once you see the issues of our culverts, you can’t unsee it. Once you start looking for barriers to passage, you realize they are everywhere.”

As field coordinator, Lavelle conducts a number of biological and chemical samples and surveys, focused on a variety of topics, but especially wild and native trout populations and how to best protect them. Among the tools in her arsenal is an electrofishing backpack.

“It puts a low-pulsed DC current into the water, which temporarily stuns the fish and allows us to document the abundance and diversity of trout and the species that live alongside them,” she said. “This information is valuable for a number of reasons, including the unassessed waters program — something brought about due to fracking.”

Lavelle explained that the fracking boom in the state is dictated by permits issued by the Department of Environmental Protection.

“When deciding on a permit of where fracking is to take place or where pipelines are constructed, if the DEP doesn’t know the trout are there, it can’t make educated decisions on the permit requests,” she said. “This doesn’t mean that pipelines are stopped — but it may influence when they are constructed so they don’t interfere with fish spawning times — the goal is to do it intelligently to have the minimal amount of impact possible.”

One issue that has caused quite a bit of negative impact on trout populations and other aquatic resources is abandoned mine drainage.

“It is definitely the leading cause of water impairments in Pennsylvania,” said Lavelle, adding that she and her colleagues have spent a tremendous amount of time in the regions most affected, like Clearfield and Cambria counties and areas surrounding Pittsburgh and Scranton.

“If you live in a watershed that has these impacts, you are acutely aware of it — but if don’t live near affected areas, it’s not like it’s a household thing,” she said. “I grew up in the Scranton area, where we didn’t think a whole lot about it, but the evidence of coal mining was all around us. It wasn’t a huge shock to me to learn the water quality and land impacts of it.”

​She admits that the messaging around abandoned mine draining needs additional work.

“Even though there’s not as much coal mining going on in Pennsylvania right now, the restoration we are working to complete is on mines that have been abandoned for decades and decades,” she said. “A tremendous amount of work has been done in land reclamation and treatment systems developed to limit the impact. There is still a ton of work to be done.”

Lavelle feels that many people underestimate the native and wild trout resources within our state.

“We have a saying here that if you take care of the fish, the fishing will take care of itself,” she said. “That includes practicing things like catch-and-release and refraining from mowing down the banks if you live along a stream — leave some protection from sediment erosion and opportunities for shade and places to hide for fish.”

She also touted the importance of devoting some personal time toward making a difference.

“I always played outside, and grew up hunting, fishing and hiking. I never dreamt of a job as cool as I have now with Trout Unlimited,” she said, “but I volunteered with them before I worked with them. I am a big proponent of volunteering, fishing and cold, clean water.”

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