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London Free Press: Special Reports: A River

Wired fish help in dam effect study
Randy Richmond
Sun Media

June 10, 2008  

London's fish are wired for sound.

Biologist Chris Bunt inserts a tiny radio tag into the belly of a sleeping bass, above, and stitches it up, below, so biologists can study whether the rebuilt Springbank Dam poses an obstruction to the movement of fish. (MIKE HENSEN/Sun Media)

Carrying tiny transmitters and trailing tiny antennae, they're sending messages that will determine how humans use the Thames River and how the river looks in spring.

Already, the fish have delayed the shutting of the rebuilt Springbank Dam and have Londoners wondering why the river is so low this year.

"We are getting calls from people saying, 'Why does the river look so different?' " said Pat Donnelly, London's watershed manager.

The answer: a multi-year study on how fish are moving up and down the river over the reconstructed dam.

The dam was traditionally shut the May long weekend, allowing water to pool upstream and boaters to start using the river.

But no one knew if that date allowed fish to finish heading upstream to spawn, Donnelly said.

"It was just a rule of thumb."

So a few years ago, when the city began reconstructing the dam, it decided to commission a study determining how long the fish spawn and how they would react to the rebuilt dam.

"We have the opportunity to learn and understand the river a lot better," Donnelly said.

Enter biologist Chris Bunt, owner of Biotactic Fish and Wildlife Research in Kitchener.

He's in charge of selecting 60 fish each spring from three species -- smallmouth bass, white suckers and shorthead redhorse.

Each fish is caught upstream of the Springbank Dam before spawning and put into a cooler containing a solution that puts it to sleep.

Bunt and his assistant make a one-centimetre incision in the sleeping fish's belly and place a three-gram transmitter inside, with a 20-centimetre antenna trailing below.

Then the fish is taken about 200 metres south of Springbank and given a couple of hours to recover, before being placed in the river to go back upstream.

The transmitters are constantly sending data, about 65,000 lines a week, telling Bunt if the dam is stopping or delaying the fish. Even a short delay can stop the fish from spawning.

The transmitters don't harm the fish, which build a pocket of tissue around the transmitter to keep it away from other organs, Bunt said. And some species are able to discard the antenna and transmitter through its digestive system.

Bunt conducted a baseline study in 2006, when the stop-logs of the old dam had been removed.

At that point, "there was nothing in the river to stop the fish," Bunt said. "We are attempting to prove the fish are swimming past the new dam as if nothing is there as well."

Bunt didn't gather fish last year, because the dam was being built. The results for this spring are not in yet.

"There do appear to be some differences from 2006 and there appears to be some delay," he said.

But Bunt suspects that has less to do with the new dam than the altering of the river channel by the construction work itself.

"The main channel from 2006 has been altered. I don't think there is a throughway for the fish yet."

The river will carve out a throughway, he added.

The results of the study, costing about $40,000 each year, will determine when the city closes the dam in spring and allows the river upstream to rise, Donnelly said.

"June 15 is the new rule of the thumb, but the research will refine that date."

Randy Richmond is a Free Press reporter.

E-MAIL: Randy Richmond

As Advertised in the London Free Press

A River: Videos

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River Photos
A River published Monday, May 5

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A River The Thames, London and the tides that bind them

Toy Boat Tour
A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 1
Free Press reporter Randy Richmond launches a boat at the north source of the Thames River.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 2
Reporter Randy Richmond launches a toy boat on the south branch of the Thames. This week: Managing Editor Joe Ruscitti talks about why the paper is focusing a seasonal series on the river.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 3
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The toy boat finds itself in Fanshawe Lake. This week: Mike Morris from the Fanshawe Yacht Club.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 7
The green toy boat enters London on the Thames' south branch. This week: naturalist Ann White.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 8
The green boat drifts though St. Julien Park. This week: community activist Bernie Brooke.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 9
The toy boat on the south branch of the Thames goes over Hunt Dam. This week: Cathy Reeves of the UTRCA talks about the more than 200 barriers found throughout the watershed.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 10
The black toy boat challenges the Fanshawe Dam. This week: Water Resource Engineer Mark Helsten talks about Fanshawe Dam.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 11
The green toy boat floats through London on the south branch of the Thames. This week: landscape architect Ron Koudys.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 12
The black toy boat makes its way down the north branch of the Thames. This week: London poet and writer Penn Kemp talks about the literary implications of the river.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 13
The black toy boat approaches the Forks on the north branch of the Thames. This week: engineer Slobodan Simonovic talks about the potential for another massive flood in London.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 14
The two toy boats meet at the Forks of the Thames. This week: Kevin Bice the London artist who conceived and organized the artbook "The River Project."

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 15
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A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 16
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A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 17
The toy boats leave London and float through Komoka Provincial Park. This week: Anita Caveney of the McIlwraith Naturalists talks about her efforts to protect the species of Komoka Park.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 18
The toy boats float through Delaware and the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation. This week: Jode Kechego talks about what the Thames means to his people.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 19
The toy boats float around Big Bend. This week: Mary Simpson talks about the Thames as a social boundary.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 20
The toy boats float through Thamesville. This week: historian Arthur Pegg talks about the 1813 Battle of the Thames.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Part 21
The toy boats float through Chatham. This week: historian John Rhodes talks about the role the Thames played in Chatham as a harbour.

A River: Toy Boat Tour, Final
The toy boast arrive at Lighthouse Cove. This week: Jim Cooke, owner of the Lighthouse Inn, talks about living where the Thames ends.

Sun Media Corporation

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