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RFID Tracks Fish at High Speed in Washington Dam

With LF antennas embedded in concrete at the Lower Granite Dam spillway, a solution developed by Biomark and the National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration is capturing the unique ID numbers of thousands of salmon and steelhead as they pass over the dam at speeds of up to 47 miles per hour.
By Claire Swedberg
Feb 02, 2020

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), together with RFID technology company Biomark, has launched a passive low-frequency (LF) RFID tracking system at the Lower Granite Dam's Ogee spillway. The system captures the unique identity of salmon at a distance of 1 meter or more underwater as the animals pass by at approximately 47 miles per hour on their way to the Pacific Ocean's Columbia Basin.

The RFID antenna array that captures that data is permanently built into Spillway 1 at the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE)'s Lower Granite Dam. The antennas are embedded into the concrete spillway ogee. The USACE owns and operates the dam on the lower Snake River, while the RFID technology is largely funded by the Bonneville Power Administration, which generates and sells hydropower from the dam.

The wireless tracking system includes several engineering feats to capture tag transmissions. This involves enlarging the RF field in which the tags can be read, as well as reducing the volume of data being transmitted by tags, thereby ensuring each transmission is received in the time period during which the salmon are within read range.

NOAA has been using RFID to track salmon dating back to the 1980s, when 400 KHz tags were inserted in fish. The tracking efforts are intended to help researchers understand salmon populations in the Columbia River and related waterways, whose numbers have been dwindling. Salmon loss results from a variety of factors that could include the dams, habitat loss, heavy fishing and climate change. In recent years, BPA has been required to spill more water through its dam annually, in order to get more salmon over the dam and into the sea, which means the fish themselves are moving faster within a larger volume of water.

The previous RFID detection system included a traditional juvenile bypass system through which salmon were coaxed to pass at a reduced speed, thus ensuring their tags could be read and that they had a softer landing on the other side of the dam, says Gabriel Brooks, NOAA's electronics technician. With the larger volume of water moving through the spillway, however, a smaller portion of fish do not use the bypass system, leading to a increase in the proportion of fish passing via the spillway.

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