Cooperative Fish and Wildlife Research Units Program: Utah
Education, Research and Technical Assistance for Managing Our Natural Resources

Stout, J.B., M.M. Conner, P. Budy, P. Mackinnon, and M. McKinstry. 2020. Keeping it classy: Classification of live fish and ghost PIT tags detected with a mobile PIT tag interrogation system using an innovative analytical approach. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences 77:1564-1573.


The ability of PIT tag data to improve demographic parameter estimates has led to the rapid advancement of PIT tag systems. However, ghost tags create uncertainty about detected tag status (i.e. live fish or ghost tag) when using mobile interrogation systems. We developed a method to differentiate between live fish and ghost tags using a random forest classification model with a novel data input structure based on known fate PIT tag detections in the San Juan River, NM, CO, and UT, USA. We used our model to classify detected tags with an overall error rate of 6.8% (1.6% ghost tags error rate and 21.8% live fish error rate). The important variables for classification were related to distance moved and response to flood flows; however, habitat variables did not appear to influence model accuracy. Our results and approach allow the use of mobile detection data with confidence and allow for greater accuracy in movement, distribution, and habitat use studies, potentially helping identify influential management actions improving our ability to conserve and recover endangered fish.