Watershed Ecosystem Processes Research on the West Coast
Watershed research to support the recovery of Pacific Salmon and other at-risk species.
Our Ecosystem Processes research focuses on understanding cause-and-effect links between landscape processes, habitats, and biota to aid in the recovery of threatened and endangered marine species including Pacific salmon.
Our conceptual framework for understanding the effects of human activities on salmon and other biota relies on two main linkages:
- Links between landscape processes and land uses to habitat conditions.
- Links between habitat conditions, salmon, and their food webs.
In this framework, habitats and habitat-forming processes are a vital connector that we must understand to determine the causes of salmon decline and which kinds of habitat restoration actions are most important to salmon recovery.
Our habitat research focuses on the two main conceptual linkages:
- Landscape processes and habitat formation
- Habitat condition and biological response
We base our river ecology theory on the concept of food webs and community dynamics, including:
- How energy moves through different parts of the watershed.
- How human activities modify energy flow.
- How bioenergetics regulates fish growth and survival.
Our Watershed Program scientists investigate stream food webs and fish ecology. We focus on juvenile salmon in various regions (i.e., Interior Columbia, Olympic Peninsula, Puget Sound, British Columbia), and environments (streams, rivers, estuaries).
Our research projects quantify the relative importance of abiotic (e.g., temperature) and biotic (e.g., competition) controls on the flow of energy to salmon in relatively pristine systems. We also look at how different types of land use (i.e., forestry vs. agriculture vs. urban) and restoration actions (i.e., carcass placement and logjam placement) affect the energy flow in aquatic food webs.
Research products are broadly categorized here as:
- Riverine food webs
- Fish ecology
Estuarine ecosystems are a key transition zone between freshwater and marine ecosystems, particularly salmon recovery. The Watershed Program's estuarine research efforts range from basic food web research in the pelagic zone of Puget Sound to researching salmon and forage fish ecology in estuaries. Products of these research efforts inform our fundamental understanding of the Puget Sound ecosystem and contribute to improving estuarine restoration efforts to benefit salmon recovery.
Our estuary research focuses on:
- Estuarine food webs
- Fish ecology
View our estuary ecology research products.
Riparian Ecology and Management
Riparian zones are key drivers of salmon habitat quantity and quality, especially where riparian buffers protect the stream from adjacent land uses. For nearly two decades, we have been investigating the ecological connections between riparian zones and streams. A particular focus of these efforts has been quantifying riparian buffers' effectiveness and riparian restoration in supporting stream ecological function.
Our riparian research includes studies of:
- Riparian-stream interactions
- Riparian thinning and management
Salmon Ecology and Population Dynamics
Recovery of salmon populations listed under the Endangered Species Act is perhaps the largest and most persistent management issue fishery managers face. While this issue encompasses a broad array of management issues—harvest, hatcheries, hydropower, non-indigenous species, and habitats--habitat decline is the key listing factor for most populations. Therefore, we must have a sound science base in salmon ecology and life history and a solid technical base in modeling salmon population dynamics as a function of habitat change or restoration actions.
In this management context, the Watershed Program has addressed a wide range of basic research questions that focus on these main topic areas:
- Salmon behavior and life history
- Salmon population resilience
- Population dynamics and life cycle modeling
Climate change is altering aquatic ecosystems via changes in precipitation patterns, stream flow, temperatures, sea level, and water chemistry. These changes are accelerating rapidly. These shifting ecosystem drivers are forcing managers to evaluate climate change's potential impacts on riverine and coastal ecosystems. Managers ask whether and how restoration plans or project designs should be altered to accommodate climate change.
We guide managers toward actions that 1) ameliorate climate change effects or 2) increase riverine ecosystem resilience and design restoration projects that can remain effective despite future changes to peak flows, low flows, or stream temperature.
Our climate change research focuses on two main topic areas:
- Vulnerability and resilience to climate change
- Restoration for a changing climate