Research into the early life history Of Atlantic salmon with focus on practical implications for conservation and stock enhancement
The widespread decline of anadromous Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar L.) populations makes it imperative to research the underlying cause and to develop mitigation measures. One of the most vulnerable phases in the life-cycle of salmon is the fry stage in early spring. Survival rates of juveniles emerging from the gravel of riverbeds are related to the three-dimensional complexity of bottom morphology and hence the variety of microhabitats within the nursery area. However, anthropogenically increased sediment supply due to changes in agricultural land-use reduces complexity, especially the roughness of the streambed. This study used a series of controlled manipulative field experiments conducted in a purpose built raceway system, to provide quantitative data on the impact of sediment pollution on salmon production in freshwaters. The comparison of in-stream habitat with an increased sediment load and control (i.e. simulated natural) situations revealed that increased sedimentation drastically reduced the salmon fry carrying capacity of a stream. A modest increase in sand bed load (15%) in semi-natural streams reduced the fry density by 50% ten days after stocking with unfed fry. Emigration patterns of fry from sedimented habitat and control habitat were significantly different. Fry from both habitat types showed unusual active upstream migration which compensated for densities exceeding the carrying capacity. Riverine habitat was optimised on a reach scale to complement the raceway results and to provide a temporary mitigation measure. The in-stream habitat of a mill leat was manipulated to build the first Eco-Hatchery for salmon in the UK based, on results from the raceway and on an extensive literature review. The hatchery achieved high survival rates of salmon juveniles throughout their freshwater life stages. Furthermore, in-stream sediment traps were developed to offer effective protection for key fry nursery habitat from excess sand bed load. The data provided by the raceway system and the Eco-Hatchery inform riparian management plans. However, addressing sedimentation related issues in salmon rivers is a politically sensitive issue and will take time. Stocking with unfed fry is being used in the interim to temporarily enhance or restore populations. But stocking programmes based on conventional hatchery methodology as a response to declining stocks have frequently failed in both respects. A semi-natural incubator for salmon eggs, the Bamberger-box, was developed to address extremely low survival of newly stocked fry from conventional hatcheries. The new incubator mimics a natural salmon redd and aims in essence to produce wild fish in a hatchery environment. The results of five years field experiments using genetically different broodstock were encouraging. There was a significant increase in the average length and body mass of fry emerging from Bamberger-boxes and the mean eyed-egg-to-fry survival was 93% - greatly exceeding published data for egg-to-fry survival in the wild. Fry from Bamberger-boxes showed a significantly different and more natural rheotactic behaviour, and fewer fry had deformities when compared with fry incubated in conventional hatchery troughs. Seasonal and diurnal emergence patterns from Bamberger-boxes correlated with natural emergence patterns. A potentially crucial advantage of this new semi-natural incubation system was to ensure larvae survival during environmental extremes when all juveniles incubated in conventional hatchery troughs did not survive. Large-scale commercial incubators based on the same principles as the Bamberger-Box were developed and proved equally effective in producing ecologically viable fry. Low costs of production and operation render the new incubators an economically viable alternative to traditional incubation systems. Exploratory research on the influence of hyporheic invertebrates abundance on fry size at emergence was carried out as a next step in continuously improving semi-natural incubation technology.