A fish of many scales: extrapolating sublethal pesticide exposures to the productivity of wild salmon populations


  • Corresponding Editor: K. Stokesbury.


For more than a decade, numerous pesticides have been detected in river systems of the western United States that support anadromous species of Pacific salmon and steelhead. Over the same interval, several declining wild salmon populations have been listed as either threatened or endangered under the U.S. Endangered Species Act (ESA). Because pesticides occur in surface waters that provide critical habitat for ESA-listed stocks, they are an ongoing concern for salmon conservation and recovery throughout California and the Pacific Northwest. Because pesticide exposures are typically sublethal, a key question is whether toxicological effects at (or below) the scale of the individual animal ultimately reduce the productivity and recovery potential of wild populations. In this study we evaluate how the sublethal impacts of pesticides on physiology and behavior can reduce the somatic growth of juvenile chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) and, by extension, subsequent size-dependent survival when animals migrate to the ocean and overwinter in their first year. Our analyses focused on the organophosphate and carbamate classes of insecticides. These neurotoxic chemicals have been widely detected in aquatic environments. They inhibit acetylcholinesterase, an enzyme in the salmon nervous system that regulates neurotransmitter-mediated signaling at synapses. Based on empirical data, we developed a model that explicitly links sublethal reductions in acetylcholinesterase activity to reductions in feeding behavior, food ration, growth, and size at migration. Individual size was then used to estimate size-dependent survival during migration and transition to the sea. Individual survival estimates were then integrated into a life-history population projection matrix and used to calculate population productivity and growth rate. Our results indicate that short-term (i.e., four-day) exposures that are representative of seasonal pesticide use may be sufficient to reduce the growth and size at ocean entry of juvenile chinook. The consequent reduction in individual survival over successive years reduces the intrinsic productivity (lambda) of a modeled ocean-type chinook population. Overall, we show that exposures to common pesticides may place important constraints on the recovery of ESA-listed salmon species, and that simple models can be used to extrapolate toxicological impacts across several scales of biological complexity.