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Assessing native fish restoration potential in Catoctin Mountain Park

December 15, 2020

Biological conservation is a fundamental purpose of the National Park system, and Catoctin Mountain Park (CATO) supports high-quality habitat for native fishes in the headwaters of the Chesapeake Bay watershed in eastern North America. However, native Blue Ridge sculpin (Cottus caeruleomentum) have been extirpated in Big Hunting Creek above Cunningham Falls in CATO. Prior research indicates that infection by the fungal-like protist Dermocystidium is a likely cause for the extirpation, but elevated stream temperatures also have been observed in the study area, and it remains unknown whether thermal stress may exacerbate infections or otherwise limit habitat suitability for fishes in CATO.

The purpose of this study was to quantify spatial variation in summer stream temperatures and to evaluate the effects of temperature on sculpin growth rates and susceptibility to Dermocystidium infection. We used observational and experimental methods to address these objectives. First, we deployed stream temperature gages at 10 sites throughout the study area to assess hourly and daily temperatures during the summer of 2019. Second, we conducted an in situ fish enclosure experiment at five of the temperature sites to assess fish growth and susceptibility to Dermocystidium infection over a 45-day exposure period. For this experiment we collected sculpin from a stream in CATO that supports a robust population of Blue Ridge sculpin (Owens Creek) and held them in quarantine for 50 days in the Experimental Stream Laboratory at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) Leetown Science Center. Pre-exposure histopathology confirmed the absence of Dermocystidium infection prior to the introduction of fish into experimental enclosures.

We found that stream temperatures were warmer where sculpin have been extirpated than elsewhere in CATO where sculpin persist. However, the fish enclosure experiment revealed a positive effect of temperature on fish growth, suggesting that increased food availability and foraging rates compensated for increased metabolic demands in the warmest sites. Moreover, fish held in enclosures did not develop Dermocystidium infection. Our results therefore suggest that current environmental conditions in upper Big Hunting Creek may be suitable for Blue Ridge sculpin reintroduction, and this could ultimately lead to sportfishing opportunities by increasing the forage base for native brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis).

Publication Year 2020
Title Assessing native fish restoration potential in Catoctin Mountain Park
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201137
Authors Nathaniel P. Hitt, Karmann G. Kessler, Zachary A. Kelly, Karli M. Rogers, Hannah E. Macmillan, Heather L. Walsh
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2020-1137
Index ID ofr20201137
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Leetown Science Center; Eastern Ecological Science Center