Salmon shark connections: North Pacific climate change, indirect fisheries effects, or just variability?


Thomas A Okey, Bamfield Marine Sciences Centre, PO Box 100, Bamfield, BC, Canada V0R 1B0
Tel.: +1 (250) 728 3301 ext. 365
Fax: +1(250) 728 3452


A variety of changes are occurring in the ecosystems of the North Pacific Ocean and Bering Sea, but information about the mechanisms of change has been relatively limited, due in part to the region’s remoteness and subarctic conditions. Any number of ecosystem components or indicators could be used to exemplify this dilemma, but here we point to the salmon shark (Lamna ditropis, Lamnidae) as an example of a species that can potentially mediate considerable ecosystem change due to its high trophic level, but for which some basic information is lacking despite attracting some interesting research and widespread rumours and anecdotal evidence of increased abundance. Increases in the abundance of sharks such as salmon sharks in this region during the 1990s, if true, may help explain other observed changes such as declines in ocean survival rates of Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp., Salmonidae) in the region and declines in some wild salmon stocks. Mechanisms that could cause salmon shark increases in Alaskan coastal waters include: (i) increases in sea temperature since the 1970s allowing distributional shifts of this species and changes in the abundance or distribution of their prey; (ii) the 1992 banning of high seas drift gillnets; and (iii) indirect fisheries effects such as competitive release of salmon sharks in the North Pacific transition region and towards the more southern geographic extent of their annual migration as the result of fishery-related reductions in blue sharks (Prionace glauca, Carcharhinidae) and other pelagic predators. The relative plausibility of these alternative explanations can be evaluated using combinations of existing ecosystem models and empirical research and monitoring programmes including local and indigenous observations.