Salmon Density in Southeast Alaska Coastal Rivers

Salmon run in the Indian River, KLGO.
Salmon run in the Indian River.

High salmon density and low discharge create periodic hypoxia in coastal rivers


Dissolved oxygen (DO) is essential to the survival of almost all aquatic organisms. Here, we examine the possibility that abundant Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) and low streamflow combine to create hypoxic events in coastal rivers. Using high-frequency DO time series from two similar watersheds in southeastern Alaska, we summarize DO regimes and the frequency of hypoxia in relationship to salmon density and stream discharge. We also employ a simulation model that links salmon oxygen respiration to DO dynamics and predicts combinations of salmon abundance, discharge, and water temperature that may result in hypoxia. In the Indian River, where DO was monitored hourly during the ice-free season from 2010 to 2015, DO levels decreased when salmon were present. In 2013, a year with extremely high spawning salmon densities, DO dropped to 1.7 mg/L and 16% saturation, well below lethal limits. In Sawmill Creek, where DO was monitored every six minutes across an upstream–downstream gradient during the 2015 spawning season, DO remained fully saturated upstream of spawning reaches, but declined markedly downstream to 2.9 mg/L and 26% saturation during spawning. Modeled DO dynamics in the Indian River closely tracked field observations. Model sensitivity analysis illustrates that low summertime river discharge is a precursor to salmon-induced oxygen depletion in our study systems. Our results provide compelling evidence that dense salmon populations and low discharge can trigger hypoxia, even in rivers with relatively cold thermal regimes. Although climate change modeling for southeastern Alaska predicts an increase in annual precipitation, snowfall in the winter and rainfall in the summer are likely to decrease, which would in turn decrease summertime discharge in rain- and snow-fed streams and potentially increase the frequency of hypoxia. Our model template can be adapted by resource managers and watershed stakeholders to create real-time predictive models of DO trends for individual streams. While preserving thermally suitable stream habitat for cold-water taxa facing climate change has become a land management priority, managers should also consider that some protected watersheds may still be at risk of increasingly frequent hypoxia due to human impacts such as water diversion and artificially abundant salmon populations caused by hatchery straying.

Sergeant, C. J., J. R. Bellmore, C. McConnell, and J. W. Moore. 2017. High salmon density and low discharge create periodic hypoxia in coastal rivers. Ecosphere 8(6):e01846. 10.1002/ecs2.1846