Warm, dry winters truncate timing and size distribution of seaward‐migrating salmon across a large, regulated watershed

TitleWarm, dry winters truncate timing and size distribution of seaward‐migrating salmon across a large, regulated watershed
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2019
AuthorsMunsch, S. H., Greene C. M., Johnson R. C., Satterthwaite W. H., Imaki H., & Brandes P. L.
JournalEcological Application
AbstractEcologists are pressed to understand how climate constrains the timings of annual biological events (phenology). Climate influences on phenology are likely significant in estuarine watersheds because many watersheds provide seasonal fish nurseries where juvenile presence is synched with favorable conditions. While ecologists have long recognized that estuaries are generally important to juvenile fish, we incompletely understand the specific ecosystem dynamics that contribute to their nursery habitat value, limiting our ability to identify and protect vital habitat components. Here we examined the annual timing of juvenile coldwater fish migrating through a seasonally warm, hydrologically managed watershed. Our goal was to (1) understand how climate constrained the seasonal timing of water conditions necessary for juvenile fish to use nursery habitats and (2) inform management decisions about (a) mitigating climate‐mediated stress on nursery habitat function and (b) conserving heat‐constrained species in warming environments. Cool, wet winters deposited snow and cold water into mountains and reservoirs, which kept the lower watershed adequately cool for juveniles through the spring despite the region approaching its hot, dry summers. For every 1°C waters in April were colder, the juvenile fish population (1) inhabited the watershed 4–7 d longer and (2) entered marine waters, where survival is size selective, at maximum sizes 2.1 mm larger. Climate therefore appeared to constrain the nursery functions of this system by determining seasonal windows of tolerable rearing conditions, and cold water appeared to be a vital ecosystem component that promoted juvenile rearing. Fish in this system inhabit the southernmost extent of their range and already rear during the coolest part of the year, suggesting that a warming climate will truncate rather than shift their annual presence. Our findings are concerning for coldwater diadromous species in general because warming climates may constrain watershed use and diminish viability of life histories (e.g., late springtime rearing) and associated portfolio benefits over the long term. Lower watershed nurseries for coldwater fish in warming climates may be enhanced through allocating coldwater reservoir releases to prolong juvenile rearing periods downstream or restorations that facilitate colder conditions.