Drones – a Fisheries Assessment Tool?


Above: Neil Smith, Insitu Pacific Ltd. Marine researcher Amanda Hodgson holding an aerial drone. Studying ocean animals can be a tough gig. By simply observing them you change their environment. (credit – Yahoo Finance.)

Drones – perhaps you saw what the fuss was all about. The topic has surfaced in popular culture, science and technology circles, and even on the pages of Field&Stream.  In December, there were news articles about Amazon testing product delivery using drones (Unmanned Aerial System/Vehicle).  January was more interesting, when Lakemaid Beer (which I very much enjoy) launched a YouTube campaign touting beer deliveries to ice anglers.  Having experienced a beer shortage while ice fishing, I thought an excellent solution was at hand – until the FAA stepped in and grounded these flights.

Hunters and anglers have started to use the technology in ways perhaps more sinister than beer delivery.  The Field&Stream article by Michael R. Shea (2014), told of some Louisiana hunters who outfitted a drone with a thermal imaging camera, and were soon targeting feral hogs with radio communications and night-vision equipped AR-15s.  On the fisheries side, they have been used to target redfish and speckled trout on coastal flats.  The ethical dilemma of fair chase is certainly in question here, but then again, how different is this technology from side-scanning and down-scanning sonar that can tell you which tree the crappies are stacked on?

The public has weighed in against the use of these devices.  The Pew Research Center (2014) asked Americans about drone use, and 63% indicated that uninhibited personal and commercial drone use would represent a change for the worse.  Politicians tend to follow public sentiment, thus increased awareness of drones has resulted in numerous bills being introduced in various state legislatures seeking to limit their use.  Between the 2013 and 2014 state legislative sessions, over 40 states introduced bills addressing drones.  Federal regulations are already in place, with more under review.  Most of the hubbub is about civil liberties, law enforcement, and the need for search warrants.  So what does this have to do with fisheries science and management?

Many state and federal fish and wildlife agencies include a law enforcement arm.  Some proposed legislation is loosely-written, and severely limits the use of drones by “law enforcement agencies”.  Passage of such a law could take away a new fisheries assessment and management tool before it can even be used.

Fisheries assessment and management tool?  Yes, definitely.  Natural resource agencies in both Texas and Nebraska have used fixed-wing drones to conduct in-channel habitat mapping during low water in the Guadalupe (Texas) and Niobrara (Nebraska) Rivers.  Texas has also used this technology to locate isolated pools on the Blanco River during low flow conditions.  They used the information to dispatch teams to remove non-native smallmouth bass via electrofishing and seining, contributing toward efforts to repatriate Guadalupe bass, the native form that had been extirpated from the system following the introduction and concomitant hybridization with smallmouth bass (Birdsong 2012).

A drone that can see through clear coastal water for redfish and speckled trout can similarly see through clear lake water to delineate vegetation beds.  While habitat mapping is a great benefit, so is the near real-time data.  This could allow a manager to quickly assess vegetation growth and extent, and outline a timely and accurate vegetation treatment plan.

In the fall of 2013, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and the University of California-Berkeley were jointly awarded a nearly $1 million grant from the US Department of Agriculture for developing drones that can take water quality samples from lakes, rivers and streams (Abourezk 2013).  The project is still in the development stage, but the helicopter-type drones can already be deployed to collect small volume water samples from remote areas, and return the samples to people on the ground.  While questions of surface mixing and water-carrying ability remain, this is just an extension of manned helicopter water sampling that has occurred for decades.

Replacing manned flights with unmanned flights was one of the first thoughts I had in regard to drones and fisheries.  At the 2014 Midwest Fish and Wildlife Conference, Tony Sindt reported on the 2012 Ohio River Angler Survey conducted by the states of Ohio, Kentucky, and West Virginia.  The assessment team combined angler surveys with aerial pressure counts to complete the survey.  It was a great project, and I thoroughly enjoyed the presentation, but I couldn’t help but wonder if this type of study might not be a great application for drones.  Drones that can perform high resolution videography could certainly provide the images to count boats and anglers.  Or, drones that can pick out the thermal signature of a feral hog in a field can probably be used to pick out the thermal signature of an angler along a streambank or lake shore.  Is it safer and less expensive for staff to be in the airplane, or on the ground?  The answer is potentially different for different agencies and situations, but it is important to at least ask the question.  Let’s hope that as technology progresses and laws are enacted, we are at least able to ask the question and use the tool.


Abourezk, K.  2013.  UNL researchers developing water-collecting copter, Lincoln Journal-Star, September 6, 2013.  Available: http://journalstar.com/news/local/education/unl-researchers-developing-water-collecting-copter/article_74cc9981-f8d8-5a63-93ff-75fe9474c846.html

Birdsong, T.  2012.  Application of Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Technology in Support of TPWD Conservation Goals,  Annual Performance Report, State Wildlife Grants Program, Texas, Grant T-67-1.

Pew Research Center.  2014.  Views of Science and the Future.  Available:http://www.pewinternet.org/2014/04/21/views-of-science-and-the-future/

Shea, M. R. 2014.  The Drone Report: Do Unmanned Aerial Systems Have a Place in Hunting and Fishing?  Available:http://www.fieldandstream.com/articles/hunting/2014/03/drone-report-do-unmanned-aerial-systems-have-place-hunting-and-fishing

Jeff Kopaska is a graduate of Iowa State University currently employed as a biometrician in fisheries research at the Iowa Department of Natural Resources.  Jeff is very involved in the American Fisheries Society (AFS) where he has served as the President of AFS-Fisheries Information and Technology Section and is the current Chair of AFS-Electronic Services Advisory Board.  Jeff also serves as the Iowa representative to MARIS (Multi-state Aquatic Resources Information System) and is on the Science and Data Committee of the National Fish Habitat Partnership.  As an employee of Iowa DNR Fisheries, Jeff oversees many of the technology-related efforts undertaken.

This blog post has been adopted from Jeff’s Digital Revolution column, which is featured monthly in the AFS Fisheries Magazine.  You may contact Jeff with comments directly via email.

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