Graduate Thesis Or Dissertation

Aspects of the early life history of juvenile salmonids in the Dungeness River Estuary

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  • The decline of many Pacific salmon stocks has stimulated interest in the early life history and habitat requirements of juvenile salmon. Although estuarine habitat associations of juvenile salmon have been investigated in many coastal areas of the eastern Pacific Ocean, until recently, little was known about juvenile salmonid ecology within the Straits of Juan de Fuca. During the Spring/Summer outmigration period in 2006 and 2007, I examined the early life history of the five species of anadromous salmon in the Dungeness River estuary on the north Olympic Peninsula, Washington. I sampled multiple spatial scales within several habitat types to characterize salmon distribution and habitat use. My results presented in this thesis are segregated into two components: 1) tidal marsh ecology of juvenile salmonids in the Dungeness River estuary, and 2) the landscape-scale distribution of juvenile salmonids within the Dungeness River estuary. I examined the population of juvenile salmonids within blind tidal sloughs near the vicinity of the Dungeness River delta. Salmonids were present within the tidal marshes throughout the entire outmigration period (e.g., March through July). Juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) were the most abundant salmonid species within the marshes. Based on the temporal distribution and size structure of juvenile Chinook salmon in the estuary I identified at least four life history types: 1) a fry strategy included a large pulse of fish emigrating from the river at a small size (e.g., 35-45mm FL) during late winter and early spring months; 2) the second group of fish was the least abundant group emigrating from the river from April through mid May at sizes ranging from 50-75mm FL; 3) the third group of migrants entered the estuary between from late spring through the summer months at larger sizes than the initial groups (e.g., 60-90mm FL); and 4) the final group of Chinook salmon included a stream-type yearling strategy. In addition to the four life history strategies identified for Chinook salmon, I detected at least three groups of chum salmon migrating into the estuary. These groups were distinguished by their size and timing of migration and are further described according to different rearing strategies. The distribution of juvenile salmonids was most strongly influenced by the degree of connectivity (i.e., distance) between the tidal marshes and the mouth of the Dungeness River. Habitat complexity and opportunity also governed the distribution of juvenile salmonids within the tidal marshes. I also sampled three regions of the estuary with a beach seine to investigate the nearshore distribution of juvenile salmonids within the Dungeness River estuary: the delta face, inner Bay, and outer Bay. Among the three regions, species composition was highly variable between 2006 and 2007. The most common salmonids encountered within the beach seine sites included Chinook salmon, chum salmon (O. kisutch), and pink salmon (O. gorbuscha). The relative abundance of salmonids was highest near the delta face and lowest within the outer bay area. The landscape-scale distribution and habitat use of juvenile salmonids within the Dungeness River estuary is largely influenced by ecosystem connectivity, but is also linked to biotic characteristics of the fish (e.g., life history type and fish size). Although the Dungeness includes hydrogeomorphic characteristics (e.g., steep river gradient, composition of sand spits in the estuary) unique to other Pacific Northwest watersheds, this system produces a variety of life history types comparable to other estuaries. Understanding the mechanisms that drive the distribution of juvenile salmonids within the Dungeness will supply local resource managers with a baseline with which to establish ecosystem restoration goals.
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