High-Tech Satellite Tags Give Unique View into the Behavior of King Salmon

Nov 28, 2017

Preparing to attach a satellite tag to a Lake Ontario king salmon on a charter boat run by Rochester Sport Fishing.
Credit news.cornell.edu

Cornell University, New York Sea Grant, and charter boat captains have teamed up on a high-tech mission to learn more about the behavior of King Salmon in the Lake Ontario ecosystem.  They’re already getting valuable information from pop-off satellite tags attached to the fish. 

New York Sea Grant Fisheries and Ecosystem Health Specialist Jesse Lepak narrated a video that shows the tagging process with the help of charter captains.  It took about a month to tag 10 fish starting in early July.

"Once the fish are landed, they're put in a Styrofoam cradle to help keep them calm, and lake water is pumped across their gills so they can  breathe.  The fish are then tagged with a monofilament harness that connects the tag to the fish.  The harness is crimped, and the excess monofilament is cut off.  The tagged fish is ready to go."

Lepak says they have five of 10 tags in hand, and have some interesting data.

"Where fish are going to deeper water than we would expect, and also shallower, warmer water than we would expect.  As we look more into these data, we'll be able to tell what the fish are doing.  For example, the tags do have the accelerometers on them  so we'll be able to see how quickly the fish are swimming in those areas."

Dr. James Watkins is a research associate at Cornell University. 

"We can actually track these fish going up to the warmer surface waters where they don't prefer the warmer temperatures; and then also go down as deep as 300 feet into much cooler water than they prefer.  Because we have second-by-second data, we can actually track how long they deviate from those expected temperatures."

King Salmon is a big draw for anglers in Lake Ontario. Catching one is often a lifetime dream.
Credit Wayne County Tourism

He says so far, the data show the fish taking about 10 to 15 forays toward the surface, sometimes for only about five minutes.  The deep dives last about 20.  Watkins says that movement collects data about water columns, including internal waves.  All of the information can serve multiple purposes.  Lepak says scientists can learn more about fish behavior, and biologists can use it to inform management decisions.  Then, Watkins says, you have the anglers and charter services that are key drivers of the local economy.

"They provided their expertise and equipment to get fish for us to tag and helped us out with the tagging process.   We intend to get the information we find back to the charter boat captains."

Jesse Lepak says the effort is mutually beneficial.

"We can identify locations where fish are more likely to be there and actively feeding.  So, a charter boat captain may decide to go west out of the harbor instead of east one day, based on some of the conditions."

Lepak he’s been asked if they’ll tag other fish, like varieties of Trout and Sturgeon.  For now, he and Watkins say they’re sticking with King Salmon.