The Nisqually Fall Chinook population is one of 27 stocks in the Puget Sound evolutionarily significant unit listed as threatened under the federal Endangered Species Act. The preservation of the Nisqually delta ecosystem coupled with extensive restoration of approximately 1,000 acres of diked estuarine habitat is identified as the highest priority action for the recovery of naturally spawning Nisqually River Fall Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha) in the Nisqually Chinook Recovery Plan.
In order to evaluate the response of Chinook salmon to restoration, a pre-restoration baseline of life history diversity and estuary utilization must be established. Otolith analysis has been proposed as a means to measure Chinook salmon life history diversity, growth, and residence in the Nisqually estuary. Over time, the information from the otolith analyses will be used to: (1) determine if estuary restoration actions cause changes to the population structure (i.e. frequency of the different life history trajectories) for Nisqually River Chinook, (2) compare pre and post restoration residence times and growth rates, and (3) suggest whether estuary restoration yields substantial benefits for Chinook salmon.
Otoliths are calcium carbonate structures in the inner ear that grow in proportion to the overall growth of the fish. Daily growth increments can be measured so date and fish size at various habitat transitions can be back-calculated. Careful analysis of otolith microstructure can be used to determine the number of days that a fish resided in the estuary as a juvenile (increment counts), size at entrance to the estuary, size at egress, and the amount that the fish grew while in the estuary. Juvenile Chinook salmon can exhibit a variety of life history trajectories ? some enter the sea (or Puget Sound) as fry, some rear in the estuary before entering the sea, and some rear in the river and then move rapidly through the estuary into the sea as smolts.
The purpose of this study is to evaluate and use analysis of otolith microstructure as a tool for characterizing the importance of the estuary to Chinook salmon in the Nisqually River before and after restoration efforts at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (NNWR). This tool is used to quantify changes in habitat use and help assess restoration benefits to the federally threatened Nisqually River Chinook salmon population.
Analysis of otolith microstructure typically is superior to the alternative of traditional mark-recapture methods. The latter are extremely expensive or inadequate in estuary habitats, typically are biased and substantially underestimate use, and do not directly reveal the importance or contribution to adult recruitment (i.e., they do not account for differential survival afterward in Puget Sound or the ocean). Analysis of otolith microstructure for these purposes, while new, is proving highly successful in a similar study that USGS and partners are conducting in the Skagit River estuary system located in northern Puget Sound. This work has been based on research by Neilson et al. (1985). We expect to use the Skagit River data as a reference for the before/after restoration comparison in the Nisqually River.