Every organization says they are a learning organization, but the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has taken its quest for innovation to a stunning level.
During the 2021 recreation season, experts from the Pittsburgh District began a partnership with Duquesne University’s biology department. The goal was to test water quality within Crooked Creek Lake’s watershed called an “electrofishing survey,” which the corps had not used before.
While electrofishing surveys are not new, this was Pittsburgh District’s first go-around with the method. The process works through a battery-powered electrofishing-backpack shocker, which pulses the water with electricity inside a 10-foot radius. The pulse creates an electrical field between a cathode and an anode to stun nearby fish temporarily.
Downstream of the electrical field, a group uses nets to gather stunned fish to safely count, identify and document the various fish before returning them to the water.
“The process doesn’t hurt the fish in any way,” said Tony Honick, a biologist with the Pittsburgh District. “The electricity immobilizes their muscles temporarily so they can’t swim.”
Honick said the fish remain immobilized anywhere from several seconds to a few minutes, depending on the size of the fish.
“Before you know it, the effect wears off, and they just swim away,” he said.
The surveyors share the resulting data – such as the fishery’s status and water quality with other agencies, such as the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission. The data helps inform how the corps manages its natural resources, resulting in a better experience for recreators and local wildlife.
The corps has also used other avant-garde survey methods that have helped learn about rare wildlife near Crooked Creek Lake. For example, surveyors discovered six bat species near the lake through acoustic surveys in 2019. In addition, the more-recent electrofishing surveys helped find species not been seen in the watershed in almost a century.
“During the surveys, we rediscovered a small catfish called a brindled madtom that hadn't been seen in Crooked Creek since the early 1900s,” said Dr. Brady Porter, a professor in Duquesne University’s Department of Biological Sciences. “As far as we knew, it was extirpated from the system, but seeing a flourishing population of them today within the Army Corps’ land above the dam is really, really exciting.”
Partnering with local universities is not a first for the district. Its water quality team frequently works with the University of Pittsburgh’s graduate school to track contaminants in waterways. However, the electrofishing collaboration with Duquesne University is unique because it came about through Honick’s relationship with the university.
Honick earned his Ph.D. from Duquesne University in 2017 and worked under Porter to study darter fish species and fish conservation. In 2020, Honick reconnected with Porter because Honick wanted to expand the historical data available for the Crooked Creek Lake watershed.
Between 2020 and 2021, the corps and Porter’s graduate students have covered six locations around the watershed. After surveying 2,500 fish, they identified 41 fish species near Crooked Creek Lake.
“The key to this is that the water tells you what’s happening in it,” Honick said. “Finding 41 species living in the watershed tells you a lot about the stream quality. Then, you start finding higher populations of threatened species, and it indicates that, maybe, we’re doing the right thing.”