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New Evidence of Marine Heatwave Impacts on Western Alaska Chum Salmon

November 30, 2023

Alaska ecosystem changes may pose challenge for juvenile chum salmon under warming ocean temperatures

Fish swimming up river Chum salmon swimming upriver. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Stori Oates

After looking at nearly two decades of survey data, scientists found evidence to suggest that recent marine heatwave events in the eastern Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska may have played a key role in juvenile chum salmon survival. Scientists also suspect this impacted subsequent adult returns to western Alaska rivers.

In a new study published today, Alaska Fisheries Science Center and Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists found that juvenile (first ocean year) chum salmon were more abundant during the more recent an exceptionally warm marine period (2014–2019) compared to previous warm (2003–2005) and cold (2006–2013) periods. However, this increase in juvenile abundance did not lead to an increase in adult returns as expected.

Graph showing sea surface temperatures from 2003 to 2019
Arctic regions are experiencing accelerated warming, extremes in seasonal sea ice extent, and reduced salmon runs. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Researchers also observed that during the 2014-2019 warm period, juveniles were larger in size but in poorer body condition. These salmon consumed lower quality prey. As a result, they had fewer energy reserves and a lower probability of surviving their first winter. Scientists speculate this may have led to lower adult returns in recent years.

“Our data suggest a shift in how juvenile chum salmon are allocating energy during their first year at sea. This is a critical period for them and our results illustrate how anomalous events in marine ecosystems can impact their survival and future returns,” said Ed Farley, lead author and manager of the Ecosystem Monitoring and Assessment Program.

Graphic showing how prey quality, quantity and sea temperature impacts growth and fat reserves during summer
Bering Sea juvenile chum salmon food web. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

Changing Arctic Conditions

Arctic regions including the northern Bering, Chukchi, and Beaufort seas have been experiencing accelerated warming and extremes in seasonal sea ice extent. In the northern Bering Sea, unprecedented reductions in seasonal sea ice occurred during winter of 2017–2018. This was followed by an increase in warm southerly winds during February 2019 and early ice retreat. 

The ecosystem response to these extreme events was rapid. 

Critical Stages in Western Chum Salmon’s Life

Chum salmon spend the majority of their life in the marine environment. In western Alaska, juvenile chum salmon enter the marine waters of the northern Bering Sea from mid-June to mid-July. They spend their first summer at sea feeding and growing along the northern Bering Sea shelf. 

During late fall and early winter, western Alaska juvenile chum salmon migrate out of the Bering Sea and into the Gulf of Alaska. This is where they spend their first winter at sea. Over the next 1-4 or more years, they migrate between the Gulf of Alaska during winter and the Gulf of Alaska and the Bering Sea during summer. After they mature they return to their natal rivers to spawn.  

Juvenile chum salmon tend to allocate energy to rapid growth when they first enter the marine environment. Later in the season energy is allocated to fat storage. Faster growth rates early on reduce the chances that a juvenile salmon will become a meal for predators. Larger juvenile salmon that attain sufficient energy reserves by the end of summer/early fall also have a greater probability of surviving the winter. 

Juvenile salmon
Juvenile sockeye (top), chum (middle), and pink (bottom) salmon. Credit: NOAA Fisheries, Jim Murphy

How Warming Oceans May Have Affected Western Chum Salmon

Scientists speculate that chum salmon overwinter survival was affected by exposure to two separate warming events that occurred within their early marine and winter habitats. As juveniles when they first entered the marine environment, they were subjected to warmer than average temperatures in the northern Bering Sea. Those that survived and migrated to the Gulf of Alaska to overwinter were also exposed to warmer than average temperatures.  

When exposed to these higher than normal ocean temperatures in their habitats, their metabolic rates increased, requiring them to seek more food for growth. The prey that was available within their early marine habitat was of lower quality. Another issue is that typically prey availability during winter decreases. 

Researchers found that juvenile chum salmon fed on a variety of prey during the warm and cold periods. However during warm periods, researchers observed that there was an increased percentage of lower quality prey available, especially during the recent warm period. 

White jellyfish against a black background
A cnidarian (jellyfish) found in arctic waters. Image courtesy of Arctic Exploration 2002, Kevin Raskoff, MBARI, NOAA/OER

Scientists saw a shift in prey to cnidaria jellyfish during warm years. The caloric content of this jellyfish is roughly half that of other juvenile chum salmon prey. 

Juvenile chum salmon stomach contents contained jellyfish during the first warm period. In the second warm period, jellyfish were proportionally more dominant in the stomach contents. This was also the period with the lowest fat content values for juvenile chum salmon, suggesting a direct connection between late summer fat storage and prey quality.

Juvenile salmon potentially faced increased competition among other chum salmon stocks that are also distributed in the Gulf of Alaska during winter. 

Stomach contents of different marine prey
The comparison of juvenile chum salmon stomach contents reflected a change in diets between warm and cold periods. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

“It is really these potential interactions among sea temperature, prey quality, and prey quantity that can affect energy accumulation or fat storage in juvenile chum salmon during their first year at sea. These interactions may play a significant role in survival during that first winter,” said Kathrine Howard, co-author, fishery scientist, Alaska Department of Fish and Game.   

Juvenile Chum Salmon Abundance and Adult Salmon Runs

The abundance of juvenile chum salmon in the northern Bering Sea increased during the more recent warm period. Scientists suspect that warmer water in natal rivers and streams could have improved the freshwater survival of young chum salmon. This may have enabled more juveniles to make it downstream to the ocean. 

Juvenile chum salmon abundance from 2003 to 2019
Juvenile chum salmon abundance in western Alaska during warm and cold periods. Credit: NOAA Fisheries

While a strong relationship between juvenile chum salmon abundance and adult returns to rivers in the northern Bering Sea has not been established, the expectation was the greater abundance of juvenile chum salmon seen in the recent warm period would herald higher adult returns to the region three to four years later. 

This was not the case because when juvenile salmon entered the marine environment they didn’t find the food they needed to attain sufficient fat reserves prior to winter. As a result, scientists suspect this likely impacted juvenile salmon survival and potentially contributed to recent annual variation in adult survival.  

Recent declines in chum salmon and subsequent closures of commercial and subsistence fisheries in western Alaska, coinciding with years of record warm water temperatures, has heightened the urgency for this research. Many people are dependent on salmon in Alaska for food security, cultural traditions and local economies. Through this and continuing work we hope to provide information to help subsistence and small-scale commercial fisheries and state and federal resource managers plan and adapt to climate change,” said Farley.

Last updated by Alaska Fisheries Science Center on November 30, 2023