A Delaware River trout.
Photo: PA Fish and Boat Commission
The wild trout of the upper Delaware River are about to get some love.
Or at least attention.
Starting this spring and continuing through 2020, biologists from two state agencies – the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission and New York Department of Environmental Conservation – will study the river’s fish and fishermen. The goal is twofold: establish just what the fishery looks like and assess the pressure on it.
A sudden abundance of water is behind it all.
The upper Delaware system includes two tailwater rivers, the East and West branches. They converge in Hancock to form the main stem of the Delaware River.
The water flowing into them comes from three reservoirs — Cannonsville, Neversink and Pepacton – that supply water to New York City.
How much water the city has to release, and when, has always been a debate.
A U.S. Supreme Court ruling said the city, along Pennsylvania, New York, Delaware and New Jersey had to agree unanimously on what’s called the “flexible flow management plan.”
Traditionally, consensus was hard to find. Agreements, as a result, were negotiated year to year.
Worse, sufficient water for fish was hard to come by.
The states and city recently agreed on a 10-year plan, however.
That’s going to allow for better, more consistent, management, said Daryl Pierce, the Fish and Boat Commission’s Delaware River biologist.
“This is a very exciting time,” he said.
That’s especially true, at least from the commission’s point of view.
Pennsylvania’s Department of Environmental Protection is the agency officially tasked with working on the flow agreement. After some personnel changes there, though, the commission has been invited to sit in on and participate in those meetings, said Andy Shiels, director of the commission’s bureau of fisheries.
“For the first time in years, we have a true seat at the table,” Shiels said.
The research it’s helping to carry out will begin with looking for fish. According to New York’s Delaware River “fisheries investigation plan,” biologists will electroshock the river during the day to survey young of the year trout numbers. They’ll do the same after dark to look for adult fish.
Some of the trout collected will be implanted with PIT tags, which are transmitters. PIT tag detectors will be placed in the rivers at various points.
As fish swim over them, their movements – and when they make them – will be recorded.
That will reveal a lot, Pierce said.
“Does a main stem trout stay in the main stem? Does it spend some time in the tributaries? Or do trout come out of the tributaries and spend time with the big dogs, in the main stem?” Pierce asked.
Biologists – with the help of volunteers — are also going to count redds, or trout beds. They beleive wild rainbows are spawning in the Delaware’s tributaries in the spring, Pierce said. Brown trout are spawning equally in the tributaries and main stem, but always in fall.
Redd counts will “confirm the location of important spawning habitats and investigate the influence of reservoir releases on the utilization of main stem and tributary spawning habitats,” though, said the Department of Environmental Conservation.
That’s critical, Pierce said. If biologists can determine where and when spawning is occurring, they can lobby for sufficient flows at the right time to make sure fish can get to where they need to go, he added.
At the same time they’re studying fish, biologists will also be eyeing anglers.
Crews will be on the water on weekends, holidays and select weekdays to talk to anglers. They’ll be counting how many anglers are out and when, how many trout they’re keeping and what kinds.
Airplanes will even be used to count fishermen in places .where access is limited.
“We’re going to go out and try and understand what angler behaviors are,” Pierce said.
The agencies have the three years of study, and two years of analysis after, to figure out what’s going on. The flow management parties will then meet and decide whether changes need to be made, Pierce said.
It’s not just trout
The fate of the upper Delaware River impacts more than just wild trout.
The river is home to a good, and very popular, walleye fishery, said biologist Daryl Pierce. Several species of fish and amphibians considered endangered, threatened or of “concern” also live within it.
Then there’s the salt.
The lower Delaware River has a “salt line,” said commission fisheries director Andy Shiels. It’s the point on the lower Delaware where fresh water encounters salt water from the ocean.
“The flow coming out of these reservoirs, 200 miles upriver, is needed to keep the salt line below the freshwater (drinking water) intakes in Philadelphia and parts of Delaware,” Shiels said.
Last year was an especially dry one, something that moved the salt line.
“It’s significantly further north than is normally is,” Shiels said.
So biologists concerned about having enough water for trout and walleyes have to balance those needs against a lot of others, he said.