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 (ESA). Preservation and extensive restoration of the Nisqually delta ecosystem are planned to assist in recovery of the stock. A pre-restoration baseline including life history types, estuary residence time, growth rates, and habitat use are needed to evaluate the potential response of hatchery and wild Chinook salmon to restoration.
Otolith analysis has been selected as a means to examine Chinook salmon life history, 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, 3) suggest whether estuary restoration yields substantial benefits for Chinook salmon through (1) and (2), and 4) compare differences in habitat use between hatchery and wild Chinook to further protect ESA listed stock.
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 hatchery Chinook salmon are generally released as smolts that move quickly through the delta with much shorter residence times than for many wild fish and are not dependent on the delta as nursery habitat (Myers and Horton 1982; Mace 1983; Levings et al. 1986).
The purpose of this study is to use and evaluate otolith microstructure analysis as a tool for assessing the role of the estuary in the life history of hatchery Chinook salmon in the Nisqually River before and after restoration efforts at the Nisqually National Wildlife Refuge (Nisqually NWR). This tool is used to quantify changes in rate of growth, length of residence and habitat use to help predict restoration benefits to the federally threatened Nisqually River hatchery and wild Chinook salmon populations.
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 any differential survival afterward in Puget Sound or the ocean). Analysis of otolith microstructure for these purposes is proving successful for the Nisqually wild Chinook stock as well as a similar study that USGS and partners are conducting in the Skagit River estuary system located in northern Puget Sound. This work is based on research by Neilson et al. (1985). We expect to use the Skagit River as a reference for the before/after restoration comparison in the Nisqually River.