Pacific Salmon: Ecology and Management of Western Alaska’s Populations

Estuarine Ecology of Juvenile Salmon in Western Alaska: a Review

Nicola Hillgruber and Christian E. Zimmerman


Abstract.—In the late 1990s and early 2000s, large declines in numbers of chum salmon Oncorhynchus keta and Chinook salmon O. tshawytscha returning to the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim (AYK) region (Alaska, USA) illuminated the need for an improved understanding of the variables controlling salmon abundance at all life stages. In addressing questions about salmon abundance, large gaps in our knowledge of basic salmon life history and the critical early marine life stage were revealed. In this paper, results from studies conducted on the estuarine ecology of juvenile salmon in western Alaska are summarized and compared, emphasizing timing and distribution during outmigration, environmental conditions, age and growth, feeding, and energy content of salmon smolts. In western Alaska, water temperature dramatically changes with season, ranging from 0°C after ice melt in late spring/early summer to 19°C in July. Juvenile salmon were found in AYK estuaries from early May until August or September, but to date no information is available on their residence duration or survival probability. Chum salmon were the most abundant juvenile salmon reported, ranging in percent catch from <0.1% to 4.7% and most research effort has focused on this species. Abundances of Chinook salmon, sockeye salmon O. nerka, and pink salmon O. gorbuscha varied among estuaries, while coho salmon O. kisutch juveniles were consistently rare, never amounting to more than 0.8% of the catch. Dietary composition of juvenile salmon was highly variable and a shift was commonly reported from epibenthic and neustonic prey in lower salinity water to pelagic prey in higher salinity water. Gaps in the knowledge of AYK salmon estuarine ecology are still evident. For example, data on outmigration patterns and residence timing and duration, rearing conditions and their effect on diet, growth, and survival are often completely lacking or available only for few selected years and sites. Filling gaps in knowledge concerning salmon use and survival in estuarine and near-shore habitats within the AYK region will aid in assessing the relative roles of all habitats (freshwater to marine) in controlling salmon abundance.