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Western Fisheries Science News, May 2018 | Issue 6.5

WFRC Science Takes to the Skies with Unmanned Aerial Systems

Researcher using UAS on Snake River
Bringing the UAS in for landing after collecting fall Chinook salmon redd imagery in Hells Canyon on the Snake River. Credit: Ken Tiffan, USGS. (Public domain.)

Fisheries research comes with many challenges and innovative solutions. For example, how do you safely count salmon redds (i.e., spawning nests) over 60 miles (100 km) in one of the largest rivers in the western U.S.? That is the challenge USGS scientists are addressing in Hells Canyon along the Snake River. ESA-listed fall Chinook salmon are main-stem spawners, making it difficult to count redds in the expansive Snake River. Annual surveys have been conducted since 1991 to monitor the spawner population in part to gage the effectiveness of recovery measures. Helicopter surveys were used for many years but safety concerns prompted the multi-agency researchers involved with monitoring this population to find a safer, yet equally effective, alternative.

In the fall of 2017, scientists at the WFRC began using a small unmanned aerial system (UAS, aka “drone”) to assist project cooperators with the annual monitoring of the Snake River fall Chinook salmon population. Fall Chinook salmon redds can be large (~50 ft.2 or 15 m2) and are easily seen from the air in water up to 10 ft. (3 m) deep. The UAS is a safer alternative to manned helicopter flight in the rugged Hells Canyon and allows a video record of surveys to be obtained, which was not practical with helicopter surveys. This video record allows for more detailed analyses of the collected imagery. Although battery life limits flight times to about 12 minutes, this is more than adequate to survey known spawning sites that typically only take about 2-3 minutes to fly depending on their size.

Scientists are using the UAS to make biweekly surveys of known spawning sites to determine the maximum number of new redds constructed at each site throughout the season. The totals from all surveyed sites will then be expanded to the entire river using a statistical model. To determine how frequently sites must be sampled before algae regrows and obscures the redds, scientists used the UAS to view redds about every 5-7 days until they were no longer visible. This will help determine the frequency of future sampling efforts. Additionally, the UAS was used to locate fish carcasses which were then sampled for biological information. Carcasses are very difficult to see from a boat or from land, and the UAS proved to be an efficient tool for rapidly searching sections of river up to a mile in length.

The UAS has proven to be a safe, reliable, and easy to use tool for monitoring fall Chinook salmon spawners in the Snake River. Intensive training is required to operate a UAS for the USGS, however the utility of the UAS makes it worth the effort. Applications exist that make laying out and flying surveys as easy as pushing a few buttons on a digital tablet. Given the early success of this emerging tool, scientists at WFRC plan to explore additional applications and possible uses of the UAS in future research.

Newsletter Author: Rachel Reagan



USGS Scientists Receive 2017 Best Paper in Journal of Aquatic Animal Health: A recent article by scientists from the WFRC titled “Optimization of a Plaque Neutralization Test (PNT) to Identify the Exposure History of Pacific Herring to Viral Hemorrhagic Septicemia Virus (VHSV)” was selected to receive the Robert L. Kendall Award for the Best Paper in the American Fisheries Society (AFS), Journal of Aquatic Animal Health for 2017. The winning articles for each of the AFS journals will be recognized this year at the annual AFS meeting in Atlantic City in August.

USGS Scientists Receive DOI Unit Award for Excellence of Service: On May 15, 2018, WFRC scientist Jeff Duda traveled to Reston, VA to represent a team receiving the Unit Award for Excellence of Service during the DOI awards ceremony. This award recognized the excellence of service from the Elwha River Science Team - a group made up of scientists from USGS (WFRC, PCMSC, WAWSC, FORT, FRESC, AZWSC), National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and Reclamation - recognized for their work with partners (Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe, National Atmospheric and Oceanic Administration (NOAA), Washington State DNR, Trout Unlimited, University of Washington, and Eastern Washington University) to understand and explain dam-removal effects on the river’s aquatic ecosystem, geomorphology, and marine environment before, during, and following dam removal. The team accomplishments reflect exemplary scientific leadership of the DOI to understand natural systems and produce excellent science to aid decisions in resource management. The legion of scientific insights from the Elwha effort is informing future dam-removal projects around the world and enabling greater understanding of ecologically productive rivers and associated downstream marine and coastal ecosystems.


USGS at Western Division Meeting of the American Fisheries Society: On May 21-25, 2018, WFRC scientist Tim Counihan attended and presented at the Western Division of the AFS annual meeting in Anchorage, AK. The talk titled “A conceptual model framework to hypothesize pathways of stress in large rivers- A case study of age-0 White Sturgeon recruitment” was part of a session on Western Native Fishes. In this talk, Counihan presented a case study describing the application of a conceptual model that is being developed through a collaborative project with seven USGS Science Centers and several Cooperative Research Units, State Agencies, and NGOs. 

In the News

On May 17, 2018, a news release from Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and mentioning the WFRC was released. The release is about Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s denial of a permit for a company to place 800,000 Atlantic salmon in Puget Sound net pens. WFRC was involved with tests for fish virus PRV (piscine orthoreovirus) and confirmed results found by Washington State University.


Duda, J.J., M.M. Beirne, J.A. Warrick, and C.S. Magirl. 2018. Science partnership between U.S. Geologcial Survey and the Lower Elwha Klallam Tribe - Understanding the Elwha River Dam Removal Project: U.S. Geological Survey Fact Sheet 2018-3025, 4 p.

Hatten, J.R., M.J. Parsley, G.J. Garton, T.R. Batt, and R.L. Fosness. 2018. Substrate and flow characteristics associated with White Sturgeon recruitment in the Columbia River. Heliyon 4(5): e00629.

Perry, R.W., and A.C. Pope. 2018. Effects of the proposed California WaterFix North Delta Diversion on survival of juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) in the Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta, northern California: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2018-1078, 94 p. plus appendixes.