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Salmon outlook iffy for coming season

Posted: Friday, Jan 7th, 2011

Ocean conditions at the time juvenile salmon migrate into the ocean play a large role in determining their survival, and return rates as adults, like this chinook salmon. Scientists say it’s anybody’s guess how abrupt changes in 2010 might impact future salmon runs. Coho return after 18 months, spring chinook after two years, and fall chinook after three years, which means ocean conditions three or more years past directly affect current salmon runs. This year’s outlook is iffy. (File photo courtesy of ODFW)

Impact of 2010 ocean conditions unknown

Just how much an abrupt transition from El Niño to La Niña conditions in 2010 might impact future salmon runs is, for the moment, anyone’s guess.

Fisheries biologists who analyze ocean conditions to determine how well juvenile fish might survive their first few weeks at sea face a difficult task, since those conditions were “just plain nuts” last year, according to Bill Peterson, a biologist with NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center (NWFSC) at Oregon State University’s Hatfield Marine Science Center.

In fact, the switch from warm El Niño water, which stayed until June, to the ocean becoming “as cold as it has been in recent years” occurred “within a few days,” said Peterson. So making a forecast about potential future salmon runs - whether good, bad, or indifferent - is, at best, problematic.

“It could go either way,” Peterson noted.

The survival rate of juvenile salmon in the ocean is a key indicator of future salmon runs, and ocean conditions at the time those juveniles migrate from estuaries and rivers into the ocean determine their survival rate. When those young salmon enter the ocean, they need enough food to not only survive, but to grow quickly enough to escape predators. The smaller the juveniles are, the more potential predators they face offshore. And if ocean conditions aren’t favorable, the predators won’t have other fish like herring, anchovies and sardines as alternative meals, leaving the salmon even more vulnerable. Then, too, anchovies, sardines, herring, and other small fish make up the main part of the diet for the salmon themselves.

For the complete article see the 01-07-2011 issue.

Click here to purchase an electronic version of the 01-07-2011 paper.

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