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Keywords:

  • climate warming;
  • harvest management;
  • high temperatures;
  • maturation and osmoregulation;
  • physiological biopsy;
  • telemetry

Adult sockeye salmon Oncorhynchus nerka destined for the Fraser River, British Columbia are some of the most economically important populations but changes in the timing of their homeward migration have led to management challenges and conservation concerns. After a directed migration from the open ocean to the coast, this group historically would mill just off shore for 3–6 weeks prior to migrating up the Fraser River. This milling behaviour changed abruptly in 1995 and thereafter, decreasing to only a few days in some years (termed early migration), with dramatic consequences that have necessitated risk-averse management strategies. Early migrating fish consistently suffer extremely high mortality (exceeding 90% in some years) during freshwater migration and on spawning grounds prior to spawning. This synthesis examines multidisciplinary, collaborative research aimed at understanding what triggers early migration, why it results in high mortality, and how fisheries managers can utilize these scientific results. Tissue analyses from thousands of O. nerka captured along their migration trajectory from ocean to spawning grounds, including hundreds that were tracked with biotelemetry, have revealed that early migrants are more reproductively advanced and ill-prepared for osmoregulatory transition upon their entry into fresh water. Gene array profiles indicate that many early migrants are also immunocompromised and stressed, carrying a genomic profile consistent with a viral infection. The causes of these physiological changes are still under investigation. Early migration brings O. nerka into the river when it is 3–6° C warmer than historical norms, which for some late-run populations approaches or exceeds their critical maxima leading to the collapse of metabolic and cardiac scope, and mortality. As peak spawning dates have not changed, the surviving early migrants tend to mill in warm lakes near to spawning areas. These results in the accumulation of many more thermal units and longer exposures to freshwater diseases and parasites compared to fish that delay freshwater entry by milling in the cool ocean environment. Experiments have confirmed that thermally driven processes are a primary cause of mortality for early-entry migrants. The Fraser River late-run O. nerka early migration phenomenon illustrates the complex links that exist between salmonid physiology, behaviour and environment and the pivotal role that water temperature can have on population-specific migration survival.