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Underwater videographic observations of domesticated Delta smelt in field enclosures

May 24, 2022

The delta smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) is a small, euryhaline fish species endemic to the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta; it is protected under the U.S. and California Endangered Species Acts, and because of declines in population abundance, the delta smelt may be vulnerable to extinction. The California Department of Water Resources (DWR) is conducting studies to test the viability of using domesticated fish to supplement the wild population of delta smelt. These studies have focused on examining the health and survival of domesticated delta smelt placed inside enclosures (circular cages that are approximately 1.5 meters tall by 1 meter in diameter) into the wild. We completed two parts within this study using underwater cameras inside the enclosures to observe fish behavior and their responses to certain stimuli. In both parts of the study, delta smelt behaviors were broadly categorized into two basic categories: (1) normal and (2) alarm. Normal behavior was characterized as calm, non-polarized, and docile swimming behavior. Alarm behavior was characterized by sudden and rapid darting, polarized frantic swimming activity, and tighter schooling polarization of individuals.

The first part of the study took place in a semi-controlled agricultural pond on the campus of the University of California, Davis. At this agricultural pond, we developed methods of observation and documented how fish behaved in response to enclosure disturbances associated with routine cleaning and service that is required during extended field deployments of the enclosures. We observed that delta smelt behavior changed from normal to alarm at the onset of an enclosure service and from alarm to normal within about 2 minutes after the service ended.

The second part of the study was completed in cooperation with the DWR. In October 2019, DWR deployed three enclosures in the Sacramento River near Rio Vista, California. To monitor survival rate of delta smelt, DWR permitted us to deploy cameras in one enclosure to document the frequency and duration of alarm behaviors exhibited by delta smelt and the frequency, duration, and intensity of three types of disturbances: (1) noise generated from passing boats, (2) noise generated from the enclosure moving in response to wave energy, and (3) vertical movements of the enclosure generated from wave energy. Alarm behaviors averaged about 2 minutes in duration and occurred most frequently during the evening compared to midday or morning. Each disturbance variable exhibited substantial variability in duration and intensity and occurred least frequently during the morning and evening compared to midday. Alarm behaviors appeared to be most associated with high intensity enclosure noises and vertical movements; however, limited replicate samples prohibited developing a statistical relation. Alarm behaviors did not directly contribute to injury or mortality of individual delta smelt; however, indirect or sublethal effects of alarm behaviors were not examined.

Publication Year 2022
Title Underwater videographic observations of domesticated Delta smelt in field enclosures
DOI 10.3133/ofr20221028
Authors Ethan Enos, Oliver Patton, Frederick Feyrer
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2022-1028
Index ID ofr20221028
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization California Water Science Center