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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Variation in Juvenile Salmon Growth Opportunities Across a Shifting Habitat Mosaic


Historically, Chinook Salmon in the California Central Valley reared in the vast wetlands of the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta. However, more than 95% of floodplain, riparian, and wetland habitats in the Delta have become degraded because of anthropogenic factors such as pollution, introduced species, water diversions, and levees. Despite pronounced habitat loss, previous work using otolith reconstructions has revealed that some juvenile salmon continue to successfully rear for extended periods in the Delta. However, the extent to which the Delta functions to promote salmon growth relative to other habitats remains unknown. In this study, we integrated otolith microstructure (daily increment count and width) and strontium isotope (87Sr/86Sr) records to fill this critical knowledge gap by comparing the growth of natural-origin fall-run Chinook Salmon from the American River that reared in the Delta with those that remained in their natal stream. Using generalized additive models, we compared daily otolith growth rates among rearing habitats (Delta vs. American River) and years (2014 to 2018), encompassing a range of hydrologic conditions. We found that juvenile Chinook Salmon grew faster in the Delta in some years (2016), but slower in the Delta during drought conditions (2014 to 2015). The habitat that featured faster growth rates varied within and among years, suggesting the importance of maintaining a habitat mosaic for juvenile salmonids, particularly in a dynamic environment such as the California Central Valley. Linking otolith chemistry with daily growth increments provides a valuable approach to explore the mechanisms governing interannual variability in growth across habitat types, and a useful tool to quantify the effects of large-scale restoration efforts on native fishes.

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