Trout Unlimited’s brown trout collection on Deerfield River coming to a close

  • Trout Unlimited’s Deerfield River Watershed Chapter President Mike Vito and Vice President Eric Halloran stand by the Deerfield River in Florida with radio tracking equipment for following brown trout fitted with transmitters. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

  • Trout Unlimited’s Deerfield River Watershed Chapter President Mike Vito and Vice President Eric Halloran use a directional antenna to locate brown trout No. 123 in the Deerfield River. The fish had been fitted with a transmitter. STAFF PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

For the Recorder
Published: 8/5/2021 5:33:03 PM

CHARLEMONT — Trout Unlimited’s Deerfield River Watershed Chapter has been studying the movement of brown trout in the Deerfield River since September 2019. The chapter, with help from the United States Geological Survey and MassWildlife, has now completed its data collection and will wait about a year before receiving analysis.

That analysis will be of the 30 ID’d brown trout the chapter and corresponding groups implanted with radio transmitters two years ago.

Through various stationary and mobile receivers placed along the riverbank and in a vehicle to track the transmitters within the fish, data points have been gathered and will potentially correlate the fish’s movement and spawning to the river’s water levels.

“Millions and millions of data points have to be examined,” explained Mike Vito, president of the Deerfield River Watershed Chapter of Trout Unlimited.

With this data, the group is hoping to understand how brown trout react to the river’s daily “hydro-peaking” flows, or how the river levels, as a result of the Fife Brook hydroelectric dam’s releasing and withholding of water, increase and decrease.

Analysis will be done by biologists from the Silvio O. Conte Anadromous Fish Research Laboratory, a U.S. Geological Survey laboratory in Turners Falls.

As of Wednesday, Vito and Eric Halloran, chapter vice president, had evidence that 27 of the 30 brown trout implanted with transmitters have survived these past two years. The transmitters within the fish were guaranteed to last 22 months, though Halloran and Vito are still tracking down the few that are still working in their 23rd.

Since 2019, Trout Unlimited chapter volunteers have taken part in this citizen-science project. Some, like board member Kevin Kaminsky, were out individually three times each week gathering data with a vehicular receiver to check readings during the COVID-19 pandemic. Others, like Halloran, have become self-taught readers and equipment experts.

The lasting radio transmitters within the 30 chosen fish are also called telemetry responders, and Halloran is the only member of the chapter able to use his knowledge of telemetry to determine their location. Telemetry, also known as the process of recording and transmitting the readings of an instrument, allows him to “determine more accurately where the fish are and if they’re alive,” Halloran explained.

It’s something Halloran used when he practiced falconry earlier in his life, though this is the first time he’s concentrated on the practice of telemetry alone.

“Biologists will look at the mobile data and, if they see something, will send Eric out to check,” Vito said.

By looking at the stationary receivers they placed on the riverbank, or transmitters present in the fish, biologists constantly plotting the data can determine interesting or unusual patterns and call Halloran to go investigate.

“I’m trying to do an inventory of how the remaining fish have fared,” Halloran said of his work now that the data-collecting is ending. “I looked at research with telemetry to see how it’s done.”

Halloran has a background that ensures his understanding of research conduction, and was additionally able to find the research of Ted Castro-Santos at U.S. Geological Survey, among others, to support their work and learn how to use telemetry technology.

To do his work on the Deerfield River, Halloran has a special set of technology that he has learned to use and read, including a GPS, an iPhone compass and recording tool, a receiver and a Yagi antenna.

Halloran’s receiver determines the ID number of the fish they’ve tracked to that general location, as well as the signal strength of that fish’s transmitter. A high signal means the fish is closer, while a low signal means the fish is farther away. The receiver then clicks to try to find the signal of the fish through the Yagi antenna — a directional antenna that leads Halloran toward the correct swath of river where he might wade in and determine the fish’s or antenna’s state of being.

Depending on the type of movement tracked, he is able to tell if the fish is dead or alive. A transmitter moving at a slow rate upstream would point to a fish being alive, while a transmitter moving downstream at a significant pace would point to a fish being carried by the current and therefore, no longer living.

From Halloran’s side, Vito writes down every signal point recited for their notes and eventual data plotting. The duo could spend upwards of an hour pinpointing just one swath of river, though they agree the potential information they could obtain in this study is worth the time and effort.

“It was a big leap for us. A lot of money was raised,” Vito noted of the fundraising the chapter had to do to commit to this project.

The Deerfield River Watershed Chapter bought their receivers with funding from the Embrace A Stream Grant Program of Trout Unlimited National. The chapter then built on that funding by competing with other chapters to hit fundraising milestones that were matched in the organization’s Embrace A Stream Challenge.

“If successful, this could be applied to other rivers/hydroelectric dams,” Vito said, noting that many Trout Unlimited chapters are on hydro tailwaters like the Deerfield River Watershed Chapter.

With potential supporting data coming from this study, the chapter could find evidence that the “hydro-peaking” flows have negative impacts on the river’s brown trout, which could push for flow rates to be changed accordingly to benefit the trout population’s health.

“It’s something that I don’t think any other Trout Unlimited chapter has done before,” Vito said.

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