Salmon Survey Chena River Drainage
In mid-May 2015, US Fish and Wildlife Service contacted Alaska Center for UAS Integration (ACUASI) about the potential for a one day unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) mission to document Chinook salmon spawning on the upper Chena River. An operations team was formed and began discussing logistics and airspace requirements; it appeared the project would not be possible until 2016. At that time, a Certificate of Authorization (COA) was required for each project and the standard timeline for completion and approval could take up to six (6) months which was well past the spawning season.
Shortly after the university received the request for the salmon survey, the FAA provided blanket COAs for each of the six UAS test sites selected in December 2013 for integrating UAS into the National Airspace System (NAS). The Pan Pacific UAS Test Range Complex (consisting of Alaska, Oregon, Hawaii, and Iceland) is one of those test sites. The blanket authorization eliminated the need to obtain individual COAs in order to fly small unmanned aircraft systems up to 55 lbs. for public purposes within visual line of sight up to 200 ft. (this was later increased to 400 ft.). In addition, standard restrictions such as maintaining specified distances from airports, heavily populated areas, and other safety measures including required notifications to the FAA were included in the authorization. The blanket COA significantly improved what had been a long lead time before a UAS flight could take place, and made it possible for ACUASI to perform the salmon survey in July, mere months after receiving the request for the proof of concept mission on the Chena River.
US Fish and Wildlife’s project was for a short documentary film about Chinook salmon spawning in the upper Chena drainage with the intent of inspiring residents to become stewards of the fish and their habitat. Many don’t realize that the Chena River is the second largest contributor to the Alaska portion of the Yukon River Chinook (YRC) salmon yet the population appears to be declining. The Salcha River is the largest contributor of the YRC in Alaska and its population may be more stable than the Chena. Overall, the entire returning population of YRC is at approximately 50% of the long-term average. Habitat degradation in the lower and middle Chena may be a contributing factor to the apparent decline of Chena River Chinook.
Wildlife surveys are familiar territory for the university. In fact, ACAUSI has experience capturing video of spawning salmon with impactful results. In 2013 for the Idaho Power Salmon Spawning Habitat mission the university mapped fall salmon nests along 162 km of the Snake and Clearwater River in Idaho, Washington, and Oregon. The salmon were threatened under the Endangered Species Act. As you can imagine, the ACUASI team was eager for the potential to perform a salmon survey that would benefit Alaskans.
On July 31st, US Fish and Wildlife, ACUASI, and support personnel departed for a day mission within the Chena River State Recreation area. Operations were staged on the bank of the river in several locations to launch the Ptarmigan UAS and capture video footage of the area demonstrating spawning activity gathered at various heights.
On the banks of the Chena, there were several locations where the team encountered difficulty obtaining a GPS signal to operate the UAS and some haziness existed from a multitude of fires burning nearby that impacted the clarity of video that was captured. Additionally, it stayed somewhat overcast which did not provide the best lighting. But, the team was diligent and able to capture some useful video footage throughout the day and discussions are underway for a second flight campaign to continue this work.