1. Migration timing in animals has important effects on life-history transitions. Human activities can alter migration timing of animals, and understanding the effects of such disruptions remains an important goal for applied ecology. Anadromous Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) inhabit fresh water as juveniles before migrating to the ocean where they gain >90% of their biomass before returning to fresh water as adults to reproduce. Although construction of dams has delayed juvenile migration for many populations, we currently lack a synthesis of patterns in migration timing and how they relate to subsequent survival to adulthood for Pacific salmon, especially for at-risk populations.
2. We studied two groups of Pacific salmon from the Columbia River basin in the northwestern United States currently listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act. We examined how the proportion of juveniles surviving to return as adults varied with year of migration, date of arrival in the estuary, water temperature and coastal ocean upwelling using data from over 40 000 individually tagged Chinook salmon Oncorhynchus tshawytscha and steelhead Oncorhynchus mykiss.
3. In general, models with year, day and day2 had much better support from the data than those with temperature and upwelling. For Chinook salmon, we also found a residual effect of temperature after controlling for day, but the effect was small for steelhead.
4. For both species, juveniles migrating from early to mid-May survived 4–50 times greater than those migrating in mid-June. As expected, however, the estimated peak in survival varied among years, presumably reflecting interannual variation in the nearshore physical environment and trophic dynamics that affect salmon during the critical juvenile life stage.
5. Synthesis and applications. Our results indicate a possible management objective would be to speed arrival to the estuary by increasing springtime river flows. These findings also provide some insight into the mechanisms underlying seasonal differences in survival patterns, but additional studies are needed to better resolve the issue. Future changes to river flow and water temperature associated with climate change and human activities may further alter migration timing, and thus this phenomenon deserves further attention.