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Study: Salmon runs boom, go bust on cycles up to centuries

Research by University of Washington scientists indicates that salmon runs are more variable, and the causes more complicated, than believed and that fisheries managers should look at runs on a stream-to-stream basis instead of only a regional basis.

Scientists in the past 20 years have recognized that salmon stocks vary not only year to year, but also on decades-long time cycles. One example is the 30-year to 80-year booms and busts in salmon runs in Alaska and on the West Coast driven by the climate pattern known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation.

Now work led by University of Washington researchers reveals those decadal cycles may overlay even more important, centuries-long conditions, or regimes, that influence fish productivity. Cycles lasting up to 200 years were found while examining 500-year records of salmon abundance in Southwest Alaska. Natural variations in the abundance of spawning salmon are as large those due to human harvest.

"We've been able to reconstruct what salmon runs looked like before the start of commercial fishing. But rather than finding a flat baseline – some sort of long-term average run size – we've found that salmon runs fluctuated hugely, even before commercial fishing started. That these strong or weak periods could persist for sometimes hundreds of years means we need to reconsider what we think of as 'normal' for salmon stocks," said Lauren Rogers, who did this work while earning her doctorate in aquatic and fishery sciences at the UW and is now a post-doctoral researcher with the University of Oslo, Norway.

Rogers is the lead author of a paper on the findings in the Jan. 14 online early edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

"Surprisingly, salmon populations in the same regions do not all show the same changes through time. It is clear that the salmon returning to different rivers march to the beat of a different – slow – drummer," said Daniel Schindler, UW professor of aquatic and fishery sciences and co-author of the paper.