Penn State brook trout researchers featured in new 'Expedition Chesapeake' film

Jeff Mulhollem
March 20, 2019

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — It's a long way from Shanerburg Run, not far from Williamsport, Pennsylvania, to the closest shores of the Chesapeake Bay … about 200 miles. And yet the stream — or more precisely the studies Penn State researchers are conducting on the eastern brook trout it harbors — will be highlighted in a new film about the estuary and its watershed.

“Expedition Chesapeake, A Journey of Discovery,” is the first giant-screen film to focus on the Chesapeake Bay and its watershed, as well as the first film developed by Whitaker Center for Science and the Arts. It will debut at Whitaker's Harrisburg headquarters in a special showing March 20. Later this year, it will be shown in IMAX theatres around the country. 

Developed in partnership with a world-class team of scientists, educators and conservationists, “Expedition Chesapeake” encourages audiences to appreciate the value of the bay and take steps to support long-term conservation efforts in their communities. Emmy-award-winning naturalist Jeff Corwin leads viewers on an expedition from New York to Virginia, meeting along the way the families and teams that are working together to understand and address the issues facing the country’s largest estuary.

looking for brook trout

Shannon White, a doctoral student in Penn State’s Intercollege Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, and film director Greg Matkosky observing live underwater video feed as they look for brook trout.

IMAGE: Tyler Wagner/Penn State

One of the featured teams is Penn State's Tyler Wagner and Shannon White, researchers in the College of Agricultural Sciences who have been studying brook trout in the Keystone State's picturesque Loyalsock Creek Watershed. Shanerburg Run is a scenic and productive tributary of the "'Sock" in Sullivan County.

Wagner, adjunct professor of fisheries ecology, has been studying the ecology of eastern brook trout for more than a decade. White, a member of Wagner's research group and a doctoral student in Penn State’s Intercollege Graduate Degree Program in Ecology, is researching the behavioral and molecular ecology of brook trout to assist with the management and conservation of this iconic species.

Because brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis — “fish of the fountains”) require cool, clean water to survive, they are considered an indicator of health in streams and watersheds they inhabit, according to Wagner. Although historically widespread in areas with cold water and suitable habitat conditions, brook trout are now a species of concern throughout much of their native range in the eastern United States.

brook trout underwater

An Eastern brook trout is shown in this underwater shot taken from the film. Brook trout were featured because they require cool, clean water to survive and they are considered an indicator of health in streams and watersheds they inhabit.

IMAGE: Tyler Wagner/Penn State

"Most populations have been extirpated, greatly reduced or isolated to small headwater streams largely as a result of land-use change, including historical deforestation and contemporary land-use change, acid deposition, and competition with non-native species," he said.

White noted that brook trout are an important part of the region's natural heritage; however, brook trout populations in the Chesapeake Bay watershed have fallen significantly over the past 150 years, which has motivated efforts aimed at restoring and sustaining naturally reproducing brook trout populations. 

Attempts to restore and maintain brook trout populations, she explained, are one piece of a broader goal held by many state and federal agencies within the Chesapeake Bay watershed: to restore, enhance, and protect the land, water, and variety of fish and wildlife that utilize those habitats, and to increase public benefits such as water quality and recreational uses.

“It’s really important to highlight this species as a way to illustrate that the health of the bay quite literally starts here, in the headwaters," she said. "Maintaining and restoring high-quality habitat in these small streams — where brook trout can thrive — has great implications for the health of the entire watershed, including the estuary.”

ready for underwater photos

The camera on the boom was plunged below the water’s surface to show brook trout swimming, feeding and interacting in the stream currents. The fish have remarkable behaviors and live in some of the most complex habitats, according to the researchers.

IMAGE: Tyler Wagner/Penn State

The film crew followed Wagner and White to Shanerburg Run, where they have been monitoring the movement and status of brook trout for the last four years. The crew captured video of the scientists collecting and measuring brook trout and discussing the major threats to brook trout conservation. 

They then plunged the camera below the water’s surface to show fish swimming, feeding and interacting in the currents. Capturing high-quality video for an IMAX film in the middle of the forest was no easy feat, with much of the day spent hauling heavy equipment to the streamside and adjusting for correct camera angles and lighting. But, as White explained, the efforts are important for advancing public awareness about stream conservation.    

“Sometimes it’s hard for people to get excited about fish conservation because these organisms aren’t immediately obvious to the naked eye — you can drive right past a population of brook trout and never know it," she said. 

"But fish have remarkable behaviors and live in some of the most complex habitats. This film really helps immerse viewers into the underwater world and brings a new perspective to challenges with conservation of aquatic resources in general, and in the Chesapeake Bay watershed in particular.”

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated March 20, 2019