Winter mortality has been documented in a large number of freshwater fish populations, and a smaller, but increasing, number of marine and estuarine fishes. The impacted populations include a number of important North American and European resource species, yet the sources of winter mortality remain unidentified in most populations where it has been documented. Among the potential sources, thermal stress and starvation have received the most research attention. Other sources including predation and pathogens have significant impacts but have received insufficient attention to date. Designs of more recent laboratory experiments have reflected recognition of the potential for interactions among these co-occurring stressors.
Geographic patterns in winter mortality are, in some cases, linked to latitudinal clines in winter severity and variability. However, for many freshwater species in particular, the effects of local community structure (predators and prey) may overwhelm latitudinal patterns. Marine (and estuarine) systems differ from freshwater systems in several aspects important to overwintering fishes, the most important being the lack of isolating barriers in the ocean. While open population boundaries allow fish to adopt migration strategies minimizing exposure to thermal stresses, they may retard rates of evolution to local environments. Geographic patterns in the occurrence and causes of winter mortality are ultimately determined by the interaction of regional and local factors.
Winter mortality impacts population dynamics through episodic depressions in stock size and regulation of annual cohort strength. While the former tends to act in a density-independent manner, the latter can be density dependent, as most sources of mortality tend to select against the smallest members of the cohort and population. Most stock assessment and management regimes have yet to explicitly incorporate the variability in winter mortality. Potential management responses include postponement of cohort evaluation (to after first winter of life), harvest restrictions following mortality events and habitat enhancement.
Future research should place more emphasis on the ecological aspects of winter mortality including the influences of food-web structure on starvation and predation. Beyond illuminating an understudied life-history phase, studies of overwintering ecology are integral to contemporary issues in fisheries ecology including ecosystem management, habitat evaluation, and impacts of climate change.