Future of Pacific Salmon in the Face of Environmental Change: Lessons from One of the World’s Remaining Productive Salmon Regions

By Erik R. Schoen, Mark S. Wipfli, E. Jamie Trammell, Daniel J. Rinella, Angelica L. Floyd, Jess Grunblatt, Molly D. McCarthy, Benjamin E. Meyer, John M. Morton, James E. Powell, Anupma Prakash, Matthew N. Reimer, Svetlana L. Stuefer, Horacio Toniolo, Brett M. Wells & Frank D. W. Witmer

Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp. face serious challenges from climate and landscape change, particularly in the southern portion of their native range. Conversely, climate warming appears to be allowing salmon to expand northwards into the Arctic. Between these geographic extremes, in the Gulf of Alaska region, salmon are at historically high abundances but face an uncertain future due to rapid environmental change. We examined changes in climate, hydrology, land cover, salmon populations, and fisheries over the past 30–70 years in this region. We focused on the Kenai River, which supports world-famous fisheries but where Chinook Salmon O. tshawytscha populations have declined, raising concerns about their future resilience. The region is warming and experiencing drier summers and wetter autumns. The landscape is also changing, with melting glaciers, wetland loss, wildfires, and human development. This environmental transformation will likely harm some salmon populations while benefiting others. Lowland salmon streams are especially vulnerable, but retreating glaciers may allow production gains in other streams. Some fishing communities harvest a diverse portfolio of fluctuating resources, whereas others have specialized over time, potentially limiting their resilience. Maintaining diverse habitats and salmon runs may allow ecosystems and fisheries to continue to thrive amidst these changes.

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