Drone Technology for Salmon Survival

Enlisting technology for salmon to preserve cold water sanctuaries in a warming world.
Reading Time: 3 minutes

Enlisting technology for salmon to preserve cold water sanctuaries in a warming world. Photo by Drew Farwell on Unsplash

Reading Time: 3 minutes

Enabling drone technology for salmon to identify and preserve cold water sanctuaries in a warming world.

As climate change tightens its grip, the ecological challenges it poses are becoming increasingly complex, particularly for cold water species of fish, like Pacific salmon. However, in the battle to protect dwindling Pacific salmon populations from the perils of rising water temperatures, an unlikely ally has emerged: drone technology for salmon monitoring. This innovative technology is a powerful tool offering an important data collection solution to the complex problem of climate change and its impact on salmon stocks.

The warming waters brought about by global climate heating pose an existential threat to these cold-water fish. Elevated temperatures accelerate salmon metabolism, heightening energy expenditure, while diminished oxygen levels in warmer rivers compound physiological stress for returning adults. In recent years, British Columbia’s extreme drought conditions and higher-than-normal daytime temperatures have pushed water temperatures dangerously above the 20°C threshold, once an anomaly but now an unfortunately common summertime occurrence. This is not a distant threat but a pressing issue that demands immediate attention and action.

See also: Drones Used to Replant Forests After Wildfires.

Amidst this dangerous situation, nature provides a potential solution – thermal refuges or pockets of cooler water offering localized safety within rivers and streams. Recognizing their pivotal role, conservationists are advocating for integrating these sanctuaries into habitat restoration plans. However, identifying and mapping these refuges across vast expanses of salmon-bearing waters is a challenge.

Enter a powerful new alliance: the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF), First Nations partners, and the technical expertise of the British Columbia Institute of Technology’s Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems Hub. Together, they are deploying innovative drone technology coupled with drone-mounted thermal imaging cameras to comprehensively map important streams and rivers across the province.

Drone technology for salmon-bearing river systems easily surpasses the limitations of traditional on-the-ground temperature monitoring. When thermal imaging drones are not available, technicians must sample individual water temperatures at different locations – a time-intensive and expensive process. Drones enable efficient data collection over expansive areas in a fraction of the time. Drones are able to autonomously navigate predefined routes, potentially capturing millions of precise temperature readings on different days/weeks/months that are subsequently processed and analyzed to give a more accurate picture of a river’s thermal refuges.

This high-tech approach using drone-mounted thermal cameras advances the scientific understanding of thermal refuge dynamics in new ways. Detailed thermal mapping unveils the intricate patterns of cool water pockets within rivers, including their size, location, and how they fluctuate throughout the day and seasons.  This knowledge can be a game-changer for targeted restoration efforts. By pinpointing priority areas, conservation planners can now strategically protect these cold-water sanctuaries. This can involve planting native trees and shrubs along stream banks or protecting cold groundwater sources. Healthy riparian zones provide shade, naturally reducing water temperature. Additionally, strategically placed structures like large rocks or logs can create turbulence, promoting cool water upwellings from the riverbed. This targeted approach can maximize the effectiveness of restoration efforts, ensuring the long-term viability of these thermal refuges for vulnerable salmon populations.

Climate change is relentlessly reshaping the natural world, and the power of innovative collaborations between Indigenous communities, non-profits, academic institutions, and cutting-edge technologies is greatly underscored. If these unique and genetically distinct fish species are lost, the ecosystems around them may begin to collapse. These alliances are about preserving salmon and the environment as a whole. They unite diverse perspectives and knowledge to effectively defend vulnerable species. The PSF’s thermal refuge mapping project is a positive example of this multidisciplinary approach.

In a world growing increasingly warm, the path to preserving iconic Pacific salmon runs may lie in the seamless integration of drones, infrared cameras, and the hard work of people like those in local First Nations, as well as the Pacific Salmon Foundation.

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