ECOLOGISTS and scientists are taking the plunge to carry out ground-breaking DNA tests on fish in the Huddersfield Narrow Canal as part of a pioneering project set change the face of aquatic conservation.

The Canal and River Trust charity and University of Salford have set sail on a unique voyage to test the quality of wildlife habitats and biodiversity in the stretch between Saddleworth and Ashton which is a designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest .

At the same time fish were being rescued from the canal so three locks can be drained as part of a £185,000 refurbishment programme.

Several hundred, including pike, bream and perch were plucked from the water in nets and transferred to holding tanks before being released into other sections of canal.

A total of five pairs of oak gates at locks 12, 15 and 25, around Mossley are being replaced in addition to other repairs to the lock chamber walls.

The environment project, funded by players of People’s Postcode Lottery, is concentrated on a five mile section of the canal between Ashton and Oldham.

The Trust, which manages 2,000 miles of canals and 63 SSSIs, wants to assess the quality and quantity of the fish stocks so it can take measures to improve the wider health of aquatic plants and animals in the canal at this protected site.

Staff and research students from the University of Salford’s School of Environment and Life Sciences are employing cutting-edge science to test water samples using environmental DNA profiling.

This should allow them to detect all the species of fish, crustaceans and semi-aquatic mammals present in the canal at a particular spot by taking a simple water sample.

The first stage of the survey was carried out before Christmas while the canal was in water and this second phase is timed to coincide with a fish rescue being carried out by MEM Fisheries.

MEM Fisheries staff will be physically collecting, counting and measuring the fish and this information will then be compared to the non-invasive water sample environmental DNA tests being carried out by Salford University researchers.

Tom King, ecologist with the Canal and River Trust, said: “We believe people who spend time by our canals are healthier and happier. Getting closer to nature and wildlife is one of the reasons people visit.

“By linking up with University of Salford on this eDNA survey, we’re hoping to get an accurate audit of fish which support all sorts of other wildlife including herons, kingfishers and even otters.

"The project could have far reaching benefits for everyone involved in managing water spaces.”

Dr Chiara Benvenuto and Dr Allan McDevitt, lecturers at the University of Salford, are leading on the project.

Dr McDevitt added: “This environmental DNA testing technique has been around for a few years but elements of it are still being refined. This is why we are so pleased to be working with the Canal & River Trust on a real project with tangible outcomes for the health of the canal.

“If we succeed in not only accurately identifying all species of fish, crustaceans and semi-aquatic mammals that are present by taking a simple non-invasive water sample, but also to quantify abundances, it will be a great break-through for aquatic conservation.”

Data from the fish surveys will be analysed and assessed by the University of Salford and a final report produced by research students towards the end of the academic year.

This initiative is part of the Canal and River Trust’s wider 12 month project, "Making Special Places for Nature", funded by a £350,000 award from players of People’s Postcode Lottery.

It involves improving vulnerable wildlife waterway habitats across 10 key sites totalling 400 hectares – a combined area greater than the City of London.