Linking climate change projections for an Alaskan watershed to future coho salmon production

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Abstract

Climate change is predicted to dramatically change hydrologic processes across Alaska, but estimates of how these impacts will influence specific watersheds and aquatic species are lacking. Here, we linked climate, hydrology, and habitat models within a coho salmon (Oncorhynchus kisutch) population model to assess how projected climate change could affect survival at each freshwater life stage and, in turn, production of coho salmon smolts in three subwatersheds of the Chuitna (Chuit) River watershed, Alaska. Based on future climate scenarios and projections from a three-dimensional hydrology model, we simulated coho smolt production over a 20-year span at the end of the century (2080–2100). The direction (i.e., positive vs. negative) and magnitude of changes in smolt production varied substantially by climate scenario and subwatershed. Projected smolt production decreased in all three subwatersheds under the minimum air temperature and maximum precipitation scenario due to elevated peak flows and a resulting 98% reduction in egg-to-fry survival. In contrast, the maximum air temperature and minimum precipitation scenario led to an increase in smolt production in all three subwatersheds through an increase in fry survival. Other climate change scenarios led to mixed responses, with projected smolt production increasing and decreasing in different subwatersheds. Our analysis highlights the complexity inherent in predicting climate-change-related impacts to salmon populations and demonstrates that population effects may depend on interactions between the relative magnitude of hydrologic and thermal changes and their interactions with features of the local habitat.

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