Juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) life history diversity and growth variability in a large freshwater tidal estuary
Goertler, Pascale Ava Lake
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For many fish and wildlife species, a mosaic of available habitats is required to complete their life cycle, and is considered necessary to ensure population stability and persistence. Particularly for young animals, nursery habitats provide opportunities for rapid growth and high survival during this vulnerable life stage. My thesis focuses on juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and their use of estuarine wetlands as nursery habitat. Estuaries are highly productive systems representing a mosaic of habitats connecting rivers to the sea, and freshwater tidal estuaries provide abundant prey communities, shade, refuge from predation and transitional habitat for the osmoregulatory changes experienced by anadromous fishes. I will be discussing the freshwater tidal wetland habitat use of juvenile Chinook salmon in the Columbia River estuary, which are listed under the Endangered Species Act. I used otolith microstructural growth estimates and prey consumption to measure rearing habitat quality. This sampling effort was designed to target as much genetic diversity as possible, and individual assignment to regional stocks of origin was used to describe the diversity of juvenile Chinook salmon groups inhabiting the estuary. Diversity is important for resilience, and in salmon biocomplexity within fish stocks has been shown to ensure collective productivity despite environmental change. However much of the research which links diversity to resilience in salmon has focused on the adult portion of the life cycle and many resource management policies oversimplify juvenile life history diversity. When this oversimplification of juvenile life history diversity is applied to salmon conservation it may be ignoring critical indicators for stability. Therefore in addition to genetic diversity I also explore methods for better defining juvenile life history diversity and its application in salmon management, such as permitting requirements, habitat restoration, hydropower practices and hatchery management. This study addresses how juvenile salmon growth changes among a range of wetland habitats in the freshwater tidal portion of the Columbia River estuary and how growth variation describes and contributes to life history diversity. To do this, I incorporated otolith microstructure, individual assignment to regional stock of origin, GIS habitat mapping and diet composition, in three habitats (mainstem river, tributary confluence and backwater channel) along ~130 km of the upper estuary. For my first chapter I employed a generalized linear model (GLM) to test three hypotheses: juvenile Chinook growth was best explained by (1) temporal factors, (2) habitat use, or (3) demographic characteristics, such as stock of origin or the timing of seaward migration. I found that variation in growth was best explained by habitat type and an interaction between fork length and month of capture. Juvenile Chinook salmon grew faster in backwater channel habitat and later in the summer. I also found that mid-summer and late summer/fall subyearlings had the highest estuarine growth rates. When compared to other studies in the basin these juvenile Chinook grew on average 0.23, 0.11-0.43 mm/d in the freshwater tidal estuary, similar to estimates in the brackish estuary, but ~4 times slower than those in the plume and upstream reservoirs. However, survival studies from the system elucidated a possible tradeoff between growth and survival in the Columbia River basin. These findings present a unique example of the complexity in understanding the influences of the many processes that generate variation in growth rate for juvenile anadromous fish inhabiting estuaries. In my second chapter, I used otolith microstructure and growth trends produced in a dynamic factor analysis (DFA, a multivariate time series method only recently being used in fisheries) to identify the life history variation in juvenile Chinook salmon caught in the Columbia River estuary over a two-year period (2010-2012). I used genetic assignment to stock of origin and capture location and date with growth trajectories, as a proxy for habitat transitions, to reconstruct life history types. DFA estimated four to five growth trends were present in juvenile Chinook salmon caught in the Columbia River estuary, diversity currently being simplified in many management practices. Regional stocks and habitats did not display divergent growth histories, but the marked hatchery fish did ordinate very similarly in the trend loadings from the DFA analysis, suggesting that hatchery fish may not experience the same breadth of growth variability as wild fish. I was not able to quantify juvenile life history diversity, and juvenile Chinook life history diversity remains difficult to catalog and integrate into species conservation and habitat restoration for resource management. However, by expanding our understanding of how juvenile Chinook salmon experience their freshwater rearing environment we improve our capacity to conserve and manage salmon populations. The findings from my thesis provide the necessary information for a restoration framework to link habitat features with salmon management goals, such as juvenile growth, wild and genetic origin and life history diversity.
- Fisheries