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Abstract

Previous studies have demonstrated several reproductive-behavior patterns in male salmon, including competitive and sneaking tactics, the formation of hierarchies, and non-hierarchical aggregations around ripe females. Through behavioral observations at varying spatial and temporal scales, we examined the hypothesis that operational sex ratio (OSR) determines male sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) distribution and breeding tactics. Patterns of male distribution and behavior varied over both coarse and fine scales, associated with apparent shifts in reproductive opportunities, the physical characteristics of the breeding sites, and the deterioration of the fish as they approached death. Females spawned completely within a few days of arriving on the spawning grounds, whereas males courted the available ripe females from the date of their arrival on the spawning ground until their death. This difference in reproductive lifespans tended to elevate late-season OSRs but was partially counterbalanced by male departures and the arrival of other ripe females. The proportion of males able to dominate access to ripe females decreased and the number of large courting groups increased over the course of the season, apparently related to both increasing OSR and the deteriorating physical condition of males. However, great variation in OSR was observed within the spawning sites on a given day. OSRs were generally higher in shallow than in deep water, perhaps because larger females or more desirable breeding sites were concentrated in shallow water. The aggregations of males courting females were not stable (i.e. many arrivals and departures took place) and male aggression varied with group size. Aggression was most frequent at low OSRs and in groups of intermediate size (2–4 males per female), and much less frequent in larger groups, consistent with the needs of maximizing reproductive opportunities while minimizing unproductive energy expenditure. These results indicate that, while OSR strongly influences male distribution and behavior, other factors such as physical condition, limited movement and habitat choice may also affect male reproductive opportunities.