Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Variation in the timing of coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) migration and spawning relative to river discharge and temperature

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  • Coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) migration and spawning are unique components of the salmon life cycle because they require synchrony of behavior with other individuals as well as with acceptable fluvial conditions. As with other organisms that exhibit group mating behavior, it is likely that environmental cues trigger coho salmon movement to spawning grounds. These cues may also provide usable habitat for migration and spawning. River discharge, temperature, and length of day have long been assumed to be the environmental cues which trigger migration and spawning of coho salmon as coho return within the same season each year to spawn. Hatchery studies have also shown that the timing of reproductive behavior is heritable. If this heritability is determined by the fluvial conditions of the spawning grounds, then a predictable relationship should exist between reproductive behavior and the hydrologic and thermal regimes. Surprisingly, no defensible correlations between discharge thresholds and spawning or migrating activity have been identified for naturally reproducing coho salmon. Thermal, velocity, and depth limitations have been identified for coho salmon, but these values have not been examined in combination or within the context of a hydrologic and thermal regime. This study compares interannual patterns in the timing of coho mid-river migration in the North Umqua (180 km up river from the estuary) and the initiation of spawn timing in the Smith River basins (Oregon) with river discharge and water temperature data to ascertain whether these behaviors are driven by fluvial conditions. Additionally, we used this data to identify the window over which most migration and spawning takes place in our test systems. On the North Umpqua, coho salmon mid-river migration initiated (first 5% of migrants) after summer peak temperatures and following a threshold average daily temperature of 18 C°, but before fall storm events occurred. In most years, approximately 75% of the migrating coho salmon have moved past the Winchester Dam before fall storms initiated and when discharge remained less than the 11 year average for the month of November, more similar to summer than winter flow levels. Additionally, characteristic lengths and numbers of peaks within the distribution of annual migrations were attributable to the generational cohort that the migration belonged to despite the similarity in population size across all years. These patterns in the distribution of generational cohorts suggest an inherited timing response as well as highlight cohorts which may contain diminished sub-populations. The initiation of coho salmon spawning appears limited both by a thermal threshold of 12 C° in all basins, as well as by a minimal discharge threshold, which is unique to each stream. Continued spawning activity occurs as discharge remains elevated from fall levels. It is also notable that there was no statistical difference in the date of the initiation of spawning within each basin in a given year or across years at a given site. Together, these studies highlight the important role that the coho salmon genome plays in reproductive timing as well as the ways that fluvial thresholds limit reproductive behavior in time. Coho have survived because of their genome has been resilient when faced with environmental change. Future work should consider variability in fluvial conditions relative to coho salmon phenotypic plasticity over time. Coho salmon phenotypic plasticity will determine whether the rate of change of the hydrologic and thermal regimes important to coho salmon survival outpaces the coho’s ability to adapt. This study contributed to this future work by establishing baseline relationships between the behavior of a threatened species and measurable environmental thresholds.
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