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Even West Coast Canada's Declining Salmon Population Has Its Own App

Community Fishers was designed to help researchers fill gaps in ocean science data collection, beginning with the declining salmon population in the Salish Sea.
June 19, 2015, 12:38pm
Citizen scientists use ONC's Community Fishers app to collect oceanographic data in the Salish Sea. Image: Ocean Networks Canada/Flickr

The salmon off Canada's western coast aren't doing so great. And while I realize how absurd this probably sounds, there's an app for that, too.

It won't sit on your smartphone's home screen next to Twitter or Yelp—at least, not yet. But for the select people who can use it, the app could make all the difference in diagnosing the health of the Salish Sea.

The app is called Community Fishers, and it is a partnership between Ocean Networks Canada (ONC) and the Pacific Salmon Foundation (PSF). The two organizations have teamed up with citizen scientists "to increase the quality and range of oceanographic data," according to a release—and in this particular case, they believe a specialized Android app is one way to do it.

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The app is designed to address a longstanding problem for ocean scientists: you can't be everywhere at once, and even the places you can be don't always get you the data you want. So, to augment their existing networks of sensors, tags and autonomous vehicles along the western North American coast, ONC and the PSF are harnessing the movements of local mariners with sensors attached to their boats to gather additional data, too.

"They knew that if they wanted to capture the data they were interested in—the amount, both the frequency of the data, being able to go out and get stuff almost every week, and also to be able to do it over such a wide area and hit so many spots—to have to do that with a dedicated research vessel would be extremely expensive and potentially impossible if you only had one ship to do it," said Ryan Flagg, an observatory support engineer with Ocean Networks Canada.

So far nine privately operated boats have been rigged with WiFi-enabled instruments designed to measure various bits of data about the ocean, including temperature, depth, salinity, oxygen content and fluorescence. Each sensors sends its readings to a smartphone or a tablet with the Community Fishers app, which packages the data up nicely with GPS metadata and time synchronization, and uploads it to ONC's servers—either in real-time, over a cellular connection, or via WiFI when back at shore.

"What the app is designed to do is to make it as simple as possible to grab the data off of a WiFi enabled instrument, and capture it, and then send it back to Ocean Networks Canada," Flagg said.

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In the initial stage, the two organizations hope that the data collected by their growing ad-hoc network of community scientists—which includes active and retired fishermen, local mariners, and vessel operators from Vancouver Island University—will help answer an especially vexing question: What is happening to the salmon in the Salish Sea?

The Salish Sea is defined as the area between Vancouver Island and the coast of the province of British Columbia and Washington state. It includes the Strait of Georgia, where seawater mixes with the freshwater of the mainland's Fraser River, and the Juan De Fuca Strait, which leads out to the sea. According to the Marine Survival Project, "salmon, Chinook, coho, and steelhead have experienced tenfold declines in survival during the marine phase of their lifecycle, and their total abundance remains well below what it was 30 years ago."

Juvenile salmon swim out of the Fraser River, for example, and into the Salish Sea to the open ocean. And then when they become adults, they swim back. It's what happens along the way—who lives, who dies, when, where, and why—that's of interest to researchers, and where the data collected by Community Fishers could help.

Scientists believe that changes in both weather patterns and water quality may be affecting the salmon's ability to forage and find food, thus limiting the salmon's growth and survival rates. Meanwhile, more predators are preying on salmon—and there are, of course, other factors, such as toxins, ecological shifts and disease.

Data from Community Fishers, in conjunction with other sources, will either confirm or deny these hypotheses.

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"The ocean is a big place to sample, and anything that you can do that increases your coverage and provides information back is potentially very powerful, and that's what the Pacific Salmon Foundation and what the ONC people are trying to capture here with this citizen science effort," said Frederick Whoriskey, a salmon researcher and executive director of the Ocean Tracking Network (OTN).

The OTN's main focus is on building an infrastructure of acoustic tags that researchers and organizations can use to track the movement of specific animals from place to place. On the west coast, the OTN has been helping the PSF capture complementary data via telemetry and tacking of salmon throughout the Salish Sea.

While neither you nor I can download the app just yet—it still requires a sensor bundle and a boat to work—ONC and the PSF hope to make it possible to contribute data without pricey or specialized sensors in the future. For example, Flagg suggested that a later version of the app could use the phone's camera functionality to allow people to take pictures of algae blooms, and send the metadata—what colour the bloom was, where it was spotted and when—back to researchers for later analysis.

"The idea is that the app is just one more avenue where we don't have to have an instrument cabled on the sea floor," Flagg said.

Correction: An earlier version of this story attached the wrong photo. Motherboard regrets confusing rockfish with the illustrious salmon.