Spatial Heterogeneity of eDNA Transport Improves Stream Assessment of Threatened Salmon Presence, Abundance, and Location


The integration of environmental DNA (eDNA) within management strategies for lotic organisms requires translating eDNA detection and quantification data into inferences of the locations and abundances of target species. Understanding how eDNA is distributed in space and time within the complex environments of rivers and streams is a major factor in achieving this translation. Here we study bidimensional eDNA signals in streams to predict the position and abundance of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) juveniles. We use data from sentinel cages with a range of abundances (3–63 juveniles) that were deployed in three coastal streams in New Brunswick, Canada. We evaluate the spatial patterns of eDNA dispersal and determine the effect of discharge on the dilution rate of eDNA. Our results show that eDNA exhibits predictable plume dynamics downstream from sources, with eDNA being initially concentrated and transported in the midstream, but eventually accumulating in stream margins with time and distance. From these findings we developed a fish detection and distribution prediction model based on the eDNA ratio in midstream versus bankside sites for a variety of fish distribution scenarios. Finally, we advise that sampling midstream at every 400 m is sufficient to detect a single fish at low velocity, but sampling efforts need to be increased at higher water velocity (every 100 m in the systems surveyed in this study). Studying salmon eDNA spatio-temporal patterns in lotic environments is essential to developing strong quantitative population assessment models that successfully leverage eDNA as a tool to protect salmon populations.