1. Global climate change is predicted to raise water temperatures and alter flow regimes in northern river systems. Climate-related factors might have profound impacts on survival, reproduction and distribution of freshwater species such as red-listed noble crayfish (Astacus astacus) in its northern limit of distribution.
2. In this study, noble crayfish capture data over 27 years from the River Ljungan, Sweden, were examined. Time series of catch per unit effort (CPUE) were analysed in relation to the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) index, regional weather factors and water flow. CPUE was assumed to reflect differences in population size. Two models were constructed to explore the relative impact of different climate factors and density dependence on variability of catch sizes.
3. The most parsimonious model for CPUE time series, explaining 72% of the variance in CPUE, included density-dependent population dynamics of the crayfish and climate or weather factors. The specific effect from density dependence in the model was 37%, while climate/weather factors contributed with 35% of the variation. The most important climate/weather factors are variations in NAO index and water flow. Temperature did not improve the model fit to capture data.
4. The best model was evaluated using independent data sets that gave correlations between model predictions and data ranging from 0.44 to 0.53. The density dependence shows a time lag of 1 year, while climate variables show time lags from 2 to 6 years in relation to CPUE, indicating effects on different cohorts of the crayfish population.
5. Both density dependence and climatic factors play a significant role in population fluctuations of noble crayfish. A 6-year time lag for NAO index is puzzling but indicates that some as yet unidentified factors related to NAO might act on the juvenile stages of the population. Water flow shows a 2-year lag to the CPUE, and high flow in the river may affect adult survival. The reasons for fluctuation of crayfish catches in response to climate need to be identified, and fishing quotas should consider the different cohort sizes because of variation in environment. Reintroduction programmes for crayfish need to consider effects of climate change when designing management strategies.