Nfld. & Labrador

Drone's-eye view captures changing coastlines and capelin habitat

A Memorial University geography student takes to the sky in Newfoundland to detect minute changes in beaches and coves to help determine which sites will be chosen as places to improve capelin spawning.

WWF program aims to track minute changes in beaches and coves in Newfoundland

A drone's-eye view of Lance Cove, Conception Bay, will show any changes to the beach over time. (Brandon Tilley/Memorial University)

Brandon Tilley uses joysticks on a control panel to gingerly manoeuvre a drone up into the sky above Lance Cove, Conception Bay.

It's cold and the wind is verging on bitter as Tilley peers into the screen of a tablet, looking at what the drone is photographing 40 metres up.

"What I'm doing here in this first stage now is I'm flying around and getting some general photos of the area before I start my actual systematic survey."

Brandon Tilley's mapping will help the World Wildlife Fund decide which beaches should be rehabilitated to help with capelin spawning. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

The drone will take 500-1,000 photos at specific locations.

This is Tilley's third visit to the beach since late spring.

"I'm basically doing coastal mapping. I'm assessing the beach to see if there's any erosion or sediment change distribution over time."

Construction work on the old railbed, ATVs and other human activity have affected capelin habitat. (Brandon Tilley/Memorial University)

Tilley is a geography student completing his master's at Memorial University.

This project is sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund as part of a project to improve capelin habitat. The WWF is looking for beaches around Newfoundland and Labrador that might be restored or improved to allow better capelin runs.

Historically, Lance Cove has been a spawning site but has been affected by both storms and heavy human use.

Construction work on an old railbed, ATV use and bonfires on the beach have all affected habitat

Markers are placed around Lance Cove beach to help with aerial photography. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

Victoria Neville, senior specialist for marine fisheries and ecosystems with the group, says Tilley's information is important.

"It helps us to contextualize change. Beaches are dynamic; they change seasonally, they change in response to storms," she said.

"Brandon's work helps us to better understand how much a beach is going to naturally change throughout the year and help us to identify what is the right sediment to put on that beach."

Tilley and his assistant, Paola Vincent, spend the beginning of the day placing square markers around the cove that act as reference points.

A small drone returns to the beach after taking photographs on a pre-plotted course. (Todd O'Brien/CBC)

The drone is programmed to stop every few metres to take a picture of the coastline. Later, a software program will sew the images together to form a complete picture.

Tilley is carrying out the same mapping work he's doing in Lance Cove at beaches in Chapel's Cove and Harbour Main.

"Perhap's Lance Cove is changing too much to be worth restoring, you know, or Chapel's Cove doesn't change at all, so maybe it'd be a good spot to restore," he said.

"Or, you know, the sediment characteristics might be prime in one spot compared to another for capelin spawning."

The WWF currently has a pilot project underway in Ship Cove, Placentia Bay, where years ago part of the beach had been dug up and trucked away to make concrete.

In 2017 the WWF, with a portion of a $3.7-million grant from Fisheries and Ocean Canada's coastal restoration fund, helped restore the beach.

Neville says so far that has gone pretty well.

It was a fine run of capelin at Middle Cove beach in July 2018. (Submitted by Alick Tsui)

"We haven't seen a loss of the sediment of the type capelin use and we had two years where capelin spawned on the entire restored area."

Capelin is a forage fish, vital to the food chain, fed on by cod, seals. birds and whales.

The WWF is looking at restoring up to three more beaches and is welcoming suggestions from the public, who can also submit their own capelin sightings and photos at a website set up by the foundation,

Tilley will complete his mapping project in early 2020, and a decision on which beaches to restore will be made by 2022.

Read more from CBC Newfoundland and Labrador