Image of gloved hand holding fish.

Darkness in Box Culverts Not a Likely Barrier to Topeka Shiner

Darkness box culverts does not present a complete barrier for southwestern Minnesota fish species, according to a new MnDOT study. The findings will reduce the cost and  delay of future box culvert replacement projects.

“This research will allow MnDOT to save both time and money when replacing other box culverts in southwestern Minnesota by eliminating the need for a fish passage study for each one,” said Scott Morgan, Principal Hydraulics Engineer, MnDOT District 7.

The research project is one of several undertaken by MnDOT and the Local Road Research Board to better understand fish passage (more at mndot.gov/research), and ultimately develop a Minnesota culvert design manual for accommodating aquatic species.

What Was Our Goal?

In this study, researchers developed several objectives in their efforts to assess the effect of low light levels on fish passage through replacement box culverts. As part of this effort, they wanted to determine typical light levels in the replacement culvert and other box culverts in the region. They also sought to determine if the Topeka shiner and other fish move through culverts in the same numbers they pass through control areas in the same stream, and whether light levels affect frequency of movement. Finally, if a barrier is determined, researchers sought to design or recommend a method for mitigating light in the culvert.

What Did We Do?

In the field, researchers characterized light in long box culverts (at least 8 feet by 8 feet) by collecting many light levels with a light meter at the water surface within the three culverts and at control reaches. They also measured light levels within the water column to characterize the light conditions a fish would experience.

To determine whether Topeka shiners passed through culverts in similar numbers as through control reaches of the same stream, and whether light levels affected their passage, researchers employed a mark-and-recapture process. They caught fish upstream and downstream from the culverts or control reaches, marked them with an identifier indicating where they were caught and released, and then resampled to see where fish moved. They also noted other culvert features that could affect passage, such as water depth and velocity.

Image of fish tank.
In light manipulation experiments at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, Topeka shiners and fathead minnows were allowed to choose channels to swim along. The degree of shade in one channel was adjusted from light to deep shade.

To control for confounding variables that could affect fish movement, a laboratory study measured Topeka shiner preference for light or dark channels. Researchers used a 25-foot-long double channel box with water diverted from the Mississippi River. Fish could choose to swim along light or shaded lanes as they preferred in this light manipulation experiment.

What Did We Learn?

Although there has been increasing concern over the potential for culverts to create behavioral barriers for fish and other organisms, this was the first study that quantified these behavioral effects for fish passage. Light levels in large box culverts were not identified as a potential barrier to the fish communities present in southwestern Minnesota. Two out of the three culverts monitored showed reduced fish passage compared to the control reaches; however, fish—including Topeka shiners—were able to pass through all three.

The longest and darkest culvert had the greatest difference in movement between the culvert and the control, but this variation could not be attributed solely to light levels. This finding was supported by experiments at the St. Anthony Falls Laboratory, where fish that could select either a shaded or lighted channel showed no avoidance of the shaded channel regardless of the shading level.

The light measurements in three culverts yielded an extensive data set that can be used to model light levels through culvert barrels. Light levels at the water surface depended on the culvert entrance, dimensions, construction material, orientation and elbows, while light levels in the water column were also affected by turbidity.

What’s Next?

The conclusions of this study apply only to Topeka shiners and other small warm water fish species, and to large box culverts like those studied. Additional research is required to investigate possible barriers created by smaller, darker culverts to light-sensitive fish species and the interactions between light and other variables such as velocity.

This post pertains to Report 2017-44, “Culvert Length and Interior Lighting Impacts to Topeka Shiner Passage,” published November 2017. The full report can be accessed at mndot.gov/research/reports/2017/201744.pdf.

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