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PIT Tag Tracking – Will it Work for Us?
Midwest Region, March 1, 2011
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A view of the plunge pool in the lock structure of Lock & Dam #1 on the Osage River. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
A view of the plunge pool in the lock structure of Lock & Dam #1 on the Osage River. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo) - Photo Credit: n/a
A PIT tag with a 10-digit unique identifier is injected into each pallid sturgeon Columbia FWCO captures. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
A PIT tag with a 10-digit unique identifier is injected into each pallid sturgeon Columbia FWCO captures. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo) - Photo Credit: n/a
Degradation, rubble and re-bar at the base of L&D #1's sill is apparent at low water. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo)
Degradation, rubble and re-bar at the base of L&D #1's sill is apparent at low water. (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service photo) - Photo Credit: n/a

A couple of weeks ago I got an e-mail from a former Columbia FWCO colleague, Andy Starostka. He was pretty excited about some new technology being implemented out West using Passive Integrated Transponder (PIT) tags to track fish. A PIT tag is a small radio transponder that contains a unique code which allows individual fish to be identified by a 10-digit alphanumeric identification number. Currently, researchers tracking fish on the Missouri River are using acoustic and radio tags that actively send out a signal that can be picked up by antennas. These tags are large, require surgical implantation of the tag and are relatively short-lived due to battery limitations. Conversely, PIT tags are small, injectable and are “passive” (meaning that the tags do not require a battery). Rather than the tag transmitting a signal, a PIT tag reader sends out a radio frequency and when a tag is within range, it will relay the identification code back to the receiver. The lack of a battery is the greatest advantage of the PIT tag resulting in a very small tag that can be used in small fish and won’t impede natural fish behavior. The tag is encapsulated in glass and is expected to last decades – perfect for long-lived fish like pallid and lake sturgeon. As a tagged fish swims past an antenna, the tag is activated and transmits the unique identification number to a receiver that logs the code as well as environmental conditions onto a computer. Pass-over tracking antennae can be suspended above or anchored across a stream bed and pass-through antennae can be used in deeper, swifter water. Because we have PIT tagged and recorded biometrics on every pallid and lake sturgeon our office has captured on the Missouri River, PIT tag tracking would be an excellent method for capturing long-term movement data. Andy and I realized pretty quickly that this passive tracking approach would be particularly useful on fish passage projects, specifically on the Osage River at Lock & Dam #1 (L&D #1). L&D #1is a steel and concrete lock and dam structure from the 1920's - a remnant of steam boat commerce on the Osage River. Data supporting the idea that this lock structure is a barrier to fish may provide some motivation for funding the removal or modification and stabilization of this relic from a bygone era. The lower Osage River is affected by a hydroelectric dam and can be "flashy" - depths at the lock structure can range anywhere from 8 feet to 40 feet depending on discharge from Bagnell Dam. The Osage River can also be impacted by the Missouri River (12 miles downstream) when flows are high - causing the river to back up and overtop the dam. Sampling at the structure can be difficult due to the degradation - a lot of rubble, re-bar and steel framing are strewn about the river bottom. In a nutshell, sampling at this location can be dangerous. A passive sampling design would be a tremendous asset at this location. When we found out about PIT tag tracking, we thought that this would be the ideal spot for utilizing this technology. Last year three pallid sturgeon, one hybrid sturgeon and numerous lake sturgeon were captured at the base of L&D #1. Given this, we know that sturgeon are utilizing the lower open section of the Osage River. I thought that if a pass-through antenna array could be designed to fit the lock chamber opening (upstream side of dam), we could determine if the L&D #1is indeed a barrier to sturgeon. Unfortunately, after some conversations with engineers working on the development of this gear, we have come to the conclusion that, at this time, our project site is not an optimum location. The engineers described the limitations to us like this: antennae arrays have a limited vertical active field (the fish has to swim very close to the antenna), can be impacted by debris and sediment, are designed to activate 134.2kHz PIT tags, and are quite costly. Our sampling site has: shifting sandy substrate, fish implanted with 125 kHz tags (limited read range for this application) and we don’t have $70,000 – $100,000 to install equipment at this location. This technology is really exciting and definitely worth researching for other fish passage projects. Perhaps in a few years there will be some new developments that will allow us to use PIT tag tracking on the Missouri and Mississippi rivers - where we could get some much needed long-term movement data on pallid sturgeon. At a time when budget shortfalls are plaguing everyone, it seems that development of a passive monitoring gear for federal trust species is the next step in recovery and conservation.


Contact Info: Patricia Herman, 573-234-2132 x170, Patricia_Herman@fws.gov



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