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Case Study: Sustaining the Pacific Northwest Fishery

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The Pacific Northwest region of the United States is the location of the Columbia River, the most hydroelectrically developed river system in the world. There are over 400 dams throughout the Columbia River Basin, and collectively they produce more than 21 million kilowatts of largely pollution-free electricity — almost half of America’s power. They also control flooding in some areas, and supply many others with enough new water to turn previously arid soil into lush and productive farmland.

As is often the case, what benefits humans does not always benefit other creatures. From an environmental viewpoint, the Pacific Northwest has paid an enormous price for its electricity and irrigation. Stocks of salmon and other wild fish on the Columbia are down to 1-2% of their historical levels, prompting many to investigate the effects of dams on the movement of fish through the river. A salmon’s life cycle requires two impressive migrations: from river to ocean when young, and from ocean to river when mature. Unobstructed, these journeys are challenging enough. Through multiple dams and hydro facilities, they are considerably more difficult.

Fish passage systems

For this reason, billions of dollars have been invested in environmental research on the Columbia over the past few decades to assess and mitigate the impact of dams on fish populations. Most of the region’s dams were built before 1970, when the environmental consequences of dam construction were not fully anticipated. More recent developments are therefore largely corrective in nature, with a focus on creating structures and strategies to aid fish migration and restore stocks to past levels. For example, many dams on the Columbia have now added fish passage systems to their structures to help salmon, sturgeon, trout and other vital species navigate the river safely and efficiently by providing them with alternate passage routes that avoid dam turbines.

To determine whether efforts to help fish past a dam are successful or not, you have to be able to monitor their movements and behaviour. This is precisely where Lotek contributes most to the Pacific Northwest’s massive and ongoing environmental impact assessment efforts. For over 15 years, we have partnered, to much mutual benefit, with many of the Columbia River’s federal and state agencies, Public Utilities Districts, native tribes and other stakeholders, all of whom are involved in the long-term effort to preserve the Columbia Basin fishery. We consider ourselves fortunate to be able to contribute solutions to their challenging issues, and honoured to be chosen as a preferred provider of telemetry solutions by such organizations as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), Oregon State University, and the University of Idaho, to name but a few.

Lotek innovations to meet the challenge

Our work with the Pacific Northwest has resulted in the creation of some of our most innovative telemetry products and solutions. These include our digitally encoded transmitters and our SRX and DRX receiver systems, which allow users to reliably monitor hundreds of individually tagged fish on a single frequency. Similarly, our popular NanoTag — a highly miniaturized, digitally encoded transmitter smaller than the eraser on the end of a pencil — was first developed to meet the evolving needs of Columbia River researchers. When they first began tracking salmon, they could only follow larger mature fish, because transmitters available at the time were still too large to use on younger specimens. However, thanks to our ongoing focus on transmitter miniaturization, researchers are now able to monitor subyearling smolts less than 100mm in length. Recently, for example, Columbia scientists were able to successfully follow the out-migration of over forty thousand salmon smolts for the first time ever.

Global solutions

The benefits of our partnership with the Pacific Northwest’s stakeholders are not only mutual; they extend worldwide. According to the 2000 Report of the World Commission on Dams, there are more than 45,000 large dams in the world today. The same report states that almost one billion people rely on fish as their main source of animal protein. Clearly, the sustainability of fish stocks is a crucial global issue, and the problems facing managers on the Columbia River are also challenging dam operators around the world. With the Pacific Northwest as our incubator and proving ground for new fish monitoring technologies, Lotek is constantly developing new tools that can be used to monitor the behaviour and successful passage of fish at all dams.

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