Networking the rivers

For four years, Science on the Fly has nurtured a community science network to study distant rivers.

Science on the Fly notebook and sampling equipment.

photo by Ryan Delaney

In a world plagued by rapid change and challenges, I think many of us are asking the question: “How can I help?” As individuals, it can be hard to find a way to give back and help steward the natural resources we rely on. But, for those who love fly fishing—anglers—Science on the Fly offers a path to do just that.

Science on the Fly engages the enthusiastic and passionate fly-fishing community, in the U.S. and abroad, as community scientists. Members of the fly-fishing community have close relationships with their local rivers—from having a favorite fishing hole, to knowing the seasonally anticipated flows of the river and when certain bugs are hatching. They also are more aware than most of the impacts of climate change on local fisheries. In states like Colorado or Montana, anglers have given up the opportunity of even casting a fly rod at some points in the summer season. Why? The trout are too stressed and lethargic due to the droughts and rising water temperatures.

Crowdsourcing climate data

Our fly-fishing community scientists are excellent resources for data collection and observation of climate trends to create a clearer picture of how rivers are changing over time. With their help, we can increase the number of rivers subject to long-term studies of water quality and watershed health. Since Science on the Fly was founded in 2019, we have collected data on nutrients and organic compounds from over 350 river sites across the United States each month.

Research area
Science on the fly volunteer collects a sample

Science on the fly volunteer collects a sample.

photo by Dominic Lentini

The science collection process is straight-forward and easy. Sample locations are chosen for their accessibility and interest to fly-fishing volunteers, who are responsible for collecting a small bottle of sterile river water from each location once a month, as well as data on air and water temperature. They then freeze the bottles and bulk ship them back to Woodwell Climate Research Center one or two times a year. 

At Woodwell Climate’s Environmental Chemistry Lab, we analyze the concentrations of nutrients such as nitrate, phosphate, silica, ammonium, dissolved organic carbon, and total dissolved nitrogen. All data is shared publicly, and after we have a year’s worth of data, we write a report of the state of the river for those sampling locations.

Science on the Fly sampling gear.

photo by Dominic Lentini

A rapidly expanding network

This project got to where it is extremely quickly. A year after the program was founded, we had grown from two community scientists to 140 enthusiastic river activists. Over the course of four years, more than 7,000 bottles have been placed into the hands of our empowered community scientists.

It is easy to see how we got here so fast; when we offer a tool-kit that is free to the passionate angler and can help them give back to their watershed, they want to get involved. While it isn’t necessarily cheap for us, at a cost equaling $100 a bottle, it is an extremely effective way to add novel data to the climate science dataset on many watersheds—information we wouldn’t be able to gather otherwise.

We’re now exploring how best to integrate Science on the Fly’s water quality sampling and community scientist model with Woodwell Climate’s important research in the Alaskan Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region. Located at the lowest section of the permafrost belt, this region is experiencing rapid thaw as the climate warms. We ask: Could water quality collection be done in a way that tells the story of the rivers over time? Could anglers floating down these remote rivers provide samples in a timely manner? The answers, we’ve found, are yes, but it has taken some practice to get there, and the region presented unique challenges that we didn’t encounter in other regions.

Science on the fly raft along the shores of the Kanektok river
Andie Norton holds a salmon

left: Science on the Fly raft on the shores of the Kanektok River.

photo by Andrea Norton

right: Research Assistant Andrea Norton holds a salmon.

photo by Allie Cunningham

Our core team at Science on the Fly now rafts, researches, and fishes vulnerable and wild rivers in this region—including the Arolik, Kanektok, Kisaralik, Kwethluk, and the Goodnews—each summer season. Each morning of the trip, the teams gear up and take a variety of samples and water quality measurements—including the collection of our 60 mL sterile river water samples. We also install or retrieve water temperature monitoring sensors in the watershed, so we can see river temperatures from the entire year. Some samples collected during the trips are used directly for the Science on the Fly program, while others help collect data for different research projects associated with Woodwell Climate or other organizations.

Building partnerships to sustain science

These research trips are only answering some of our questions, however. We still want to see these rivers’ nutrient concentrations throughout the summer season—not just when we’re floating (which is normally 10 or fewer days per river). Like most science, it’s not cheap. It’s also not easy to logistically coordinate a river research trip—all the gear, travel, food, science supplies, safety equipment, and qualified team members to float—from afar.

PapaBear Adventures in Bethel, Alaska is our answer to the other half of the questions. PapaBear is an operation that helps the adventurous outdoors person get to the headwaters of remote rivers, and gives them the tools they need to float the rivers on their own. They have been instrumental in meeting the transportation needs of other Woodwell Climate projects like the Polaris Program, and now they are helping Science on the Fly get anglers out to the rivers throughout the summer season.

Beyond working with PapaBear on transportation, Science on the Fly now stations a team member—me or Joe Mangiafico, for now—at PapaBear for the summer months. This team member preps the research team’s trips, making sure they are properly prepared to go down the rivers with all materials needed. But their main goal is to encourage other PapaBear clients and their groups to be involved in the sampling. Pre-made kits are handed out to groups floating these rivers. After the groups get off the rivers, our team member retrieves the filled sample kits and freezes them for shipping back to Woodwell Climate.

The data that has returned from these endeavors is already exciting.

rivers in alaska with dots indicating the sampling locations that Science on the fly has collected from

map by Greg Fiske

In summer 2021, our Science on the Fly research team sampled two rivers, the Kwethluk and Kisaralik, and by a lucky ask to some passing groups of anglers, the Kanektok and Goodnews Rivers were sampled as well. There were a total of 45 samples collected that summer. The following summer, the combination of Science On The Fly research teams and new efforts to increase engagement with volunteer community science groups, allowed us to increase collection to 248 sample bottles. We were able to successfully increase data collection on the other rivers of the Yukon-Kuskokwim delta, and added the Arolik to our list. We hope to accomplish even more in years to come.

Four years of Science on the Fly has shown that community scientists and community science programs can be a powerful way to collect data, conduct research, and educate the public through our reports. Now that we’ve built a solid project structure, with data coming in consistently, we are beginning to switch gears and make an impact with report writing and affecting policy—all while continuing to add to the growing body of water and climate science.

We’ll be using community-collected data to create tangible reports for anglers to better understand their watersheds. We will then use these reports to help make an impact on policies, with the goal of creating or maintaining healthy watersheds, especially in the face of climate change. We look forward to continuing to give back to our community scientists and to our rivers.


To learn more about Science on the Fly, visit our website.