Comparison of Angler Pressure Counts by Manned and Unmanned Aircraft on an Arkansas Tailwater Fishery

The Arkansas Game and Fish Commission (AGFC) budgeted approximately $US250,000 for air operations in fiscal year 2017, 74% of which was for aerial observation by manned aircraft. Small unmanned aircraft (sUAS) have lower operating costs than manned aircraft, and thus significant cost savings could be experienced were sUAS to replace manned aircraft. However, it is first necessary to evaluate that data from sUAS are comparable to data from manned aircraft. Therefore, angler pressure counts were conducted simultaneously using both manned aircraft and sUAS within the four management zones of Beaver Dam Tailwater, Arkansas. Counts of boats, boat anglers, boat occupants, and non-boat anglers were compared between methods using a Wilcoxon paired signed rank test. More boat anglers were recorded using the manned aircraft than the sUAS (v = 55, P < 0.01); observ- ers in the manned aircraft appeared to have recorded some non-fishing boat occupants as anglers. Counts of the other variables were similar between methods (v range 7 to 32, P > 0.05), but there was a noticeable trend for higher counts of all variables to be recorded with the sUAS method. Observers using sUAS may better be able to discriminate whether a boat occupant is actively fishing than observers using manned aircraft. Annualized costs of the manned aircraft observation program were estimated at US$30,684. Depending on labor assumptions, annualized costs of an unmanned aircraft obser- vation program ranged $23,887–$49,212. Substituting an unmanned aircraft for manned aircraft when estimating angler effort may result in substantial savings in some, but not all, circumstances. However, because unmanned aircraft may allow for better discrimination between anglers and other boat occupants, using sUAS may lead to more accurate data.

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