Sunday, January 14, 2001


Scientists build high-tech toys for mission to save salmon

Dan Hansen
Staff writer

Photo courtesy of PNNL Web site
Department of Energy biologist Tom Carlson developed the electronic Sensor Fish to record the conditions fish encounter while passing through hydropower turbines.

First there was Sensor Fish, a rubbery, salmon-shaped package stuffed to the gills with batteries, meters and computer chips.

Scientists send the bionic baby salmon over dams and it tells them how the plunge feels to the real, flesh-and-fins thing.

Now, scientists working to save salmon are using -- or want to use -- high-tech gadgetry that would do the CIA proud.

Ultrasound imaging devices, acoustic cameras, EMG telemetry, state-of-the-art tracking systems, airborne laser altimetry ... the terms may mean little to the average person, but the technology is coming to a stream near you.

Scientists admit it's fun to feed their techno-cravings. But the gear is practical: It will help answer questions that hinder the task of saving salmon.

Questions like: Where in the Pacific do salmon spend their lives? Why do salmon born in the Snake River fare worse in the ocean than those born in the Columbia? What's the best design for a fish ladde
r? How do fluctuating water levels affect salmon eggs?

"People say you can't really find a high-tech solution (to the salmon crisis)," said Tom Karier, a Washington representative to the Northwest Power Planning Council. "But a lot of these high-tech things help us find answers."

The council helps the Bonneville Power Administration decide how to spend $127 million earmarked for wildlife each year. This year, it set aside $2 million of that money specifically for "innovative projects." It received 66 proposals, which would have cost a total of $20 million.

An advisory panel of scientists reviewed and ranked the proposals and recommended eight for funding. The council will make its final decision in February.

Many of the proposals would not have been possible five years ago.

"It's an interesting and exciting time," said David Welch, a fisheries biologist from Nanaimo, British Columbia, whose proposal was rated the best of the batch.

Welch plans to use sound waves to track salmon in the ocean -- something biologists previously couldn't do. Traditional tracking devices don't work because ocean salt disrupts radio waves. Sound waves aren't interrupted by salt.

Welch intends to surgically implant inch-long acoustic tags into the bellies of fish, then erect a series of detection sensors along the coast, from California to Alaska. The tags would send sound waves to the sensors, telling them not just that there's a salmon nearby, but which particular salmon.

Using that information, scientists hope to document whether Snake River chinook spend their lives in different water than Columbia River chinook, which could help explain the poor ocean performance of the Snake River fish.

It's not a perfect system. The tags can only send a message about a half mile. The batteries only last a few months.

It's a start.

"As scientists, we've tended to ignore the effects of the ocean because we just didn't have the tools to crack that nut," Welch said. "The fish basically go out there and disappear for two or three years.

"Now, we should get some answers."

Here are some other high-tech proposals considered for funding:

• Physicians use electromyogram machines -- EMGs are what everyone calls them -- to track muscle activity in patients. Similar machines monitor brains and hearts.

Fisheries biologist David Geist wants to insert thumb-sized EMG sensors into adult salmon that spawn in Washington's Klickitat River. That way, he can monitor the effort required to climb an aging fish ladder that isn't working as well as it should. The information will be used to improve the ladder or build a replacement.

"Rather than just measuring (river) velocity and measuring jumps and trying to make decisions based on that, we'll use the fish to tell us what we need to know," said Geist, of the U.S. Department of Energy's Pacific Northwest National Laboratory in Richland. "The fish become our measuring boards."

• Salmon die after they spawn, and scientists believe their rotting carcasses provide nutrients that are vital to Northwest forests, streams and the next generation of salmon.

Since naturally spawning salmon are rare, volunteers now haul dead fish from hatcheries to rivers. But the fish are bulky and hard to store, and scattering them may spread diseases from hatcheries to the wild.

And since whole fish are tough to carry into roadless areas, the carcasses may not be reaching the headwaters where salmon are reared.

Bio-Oregon, a company that turns salmon scraps into pet food, plans instead to turn those scraps into briquet-sized pellets. They'd be pasteurized to quell the risk of disease. They'd be odor-free and easy to carry.

"A 25-pound bag of this stuff is equivalent to 250 pounds of fish," said Ron Anderson, a fisheries biologist who works for the firm.

• When scientists wanted to document glacial shrinkage in Greenland, they flew over the island in a plane equipped with a laser that makes highly accurate and detailed measurements. The Umatilla Indian Tribe plans to use the same equipment to create 3-D computer models and cross-sections of rivers.

That information should be valuable for habitat restoration work, the review panel concluded.

• A tool developed to help the Navy find submerged explosives may someday help scientists locate salmon in deep, murky water.

Ken Tiffan, a fisheries biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey, studies chum salmon that spawn below Bonneville Dam. Between the tidal action of the lower Columbia and the variabilities of power generation, water below the dam rises and falls daily. Tiffan wants to know how that affects endangered salmon.

The water is too dark to use an underwater video camera. So Tiffan is stuck using a fish finder that's only slightly more efficient than those watched by walleye fishermen at Lake Roosevelt. It shows fish, but doesn't identify their species or reveal their activities. So Tiffan often must drag a net to scoop up and study the salmon -- a technique that can harm the fish, interrupts their spawning and offers only limited information.

To solve the problem, Tiffan wants to buy an $80,000 gizmo that the University of Washington developed for the Navy. The acoustic camera, which weighs 14 pounds and is about the size of a bread box, uses sound waves to create a clear, moving image.

Hospitals do the same thing when they use ultrasound to count the fingers on a fetus. Fisheries biologists working with steelhead on the Yakima River also use ultrasound, to separate egg-carrying fish from those that already spawned.

Traditional ultrasound works only to a depth of about 4 inches, said Ed Belcher, principal engineer at the UW applied physics laboratory. The acoustic camera can count fingers -- or fins -- through 500 feet of murky water.

"A person who is quite familiar with fish should be able to differentiate between species" by using the camera, Belcher said. "They can see the fish actually spawning. They can see the tail moving as it digs its redd," as egg nests are called.

Belcher said the UW has made only one acoustic camera so far. The second will probably go to the Department of Energy to watch how salmon respond to dams. Future buyers may include treasure hunters and search-and-rescue groups, assuming the price of the camera drops.

Tiffan's request for money to buy the UW camera probably won't make the cut for funding this year. He's convinced it eventually will find its way into his tool kit.

He's probably right.

High-tech wizardry now is as much a part of fisheries work as nets and hip boots, said Tom Carlson, a Department of Energy biologist who developed Sensor Fish.

In a little over a year, that device has taught researchers much about the pressures fish endure when they slip into a dam's turbines. It's also showed them ways to design safer turbines.

Gathering that information without Sensor Fish could have taken years. And it probably wouldn't have been as detailed.

"You really have to master a lot of basic engineering, basic physics to be effective in the field of biology these days," Carlson said.

fu979Dan Hansen can be reached at (509) 459-3938 or by e-mail at

Other proposals

Here are a few of the ideas that didn't make the grade when the Northwest Power Planning Council offered grants for "innovative" proposals to help wildlife:

•The Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife asked for $400,000 so a private company could develop a robot to vaccinate hatchery fish without human contact.

Scientists who reviewed and rated each of the proposals gave it a low rating partly because the state didn't prove a need for the machine. Also, the panel noted, while the government would pay to develop the robot, the company would have made a profit by selling or renting the robot back to the government.

•An Oregon company wanted $400,000 to "demonstrate the ability to grow huge amounts of housefly larvae" so they could be fed to fish in hatcheries.

That would be maggots.

The review panel called the proposal "marginally innovative (but intriguing)."

•An engineering firm in Richland wanted $134,800 to turn cow manure into a "nutrient supplement" for fish. The review panel wrote that it was "unconvinced of the feasibility and priority of this effort."

Dan Hansen

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