Research paper

Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 24, Issue 3, pp 757-780

First online:

Comparative estuarine and marine migration ecology of Atlantic salmon and steelhead: blue highways and open plains

  • Sean A. HayesAffiliated withFisheries Ecology Division, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Email author 
  • , John F. KocikAffiliated withResource Evaluation and Assessment Division, Northeast Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)

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This synthesis focuses on the estuarine and ocean ecology of Atlantic salmon (Salmo salar) and steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) across their southern ranges in North America. General life history and ecology share many common traits including iteroparity, duration of freshwater (0–3 years) and marine (2–5 years) rearing, ocean emigration at relatively large sizes and strong surface orientation compared to other salmonids. Despite parallels in life history and anthropogenic pressures, several differences emerged for these species. First, steelhead have greater life history diversity and a broader geographic distribution. Generally, estuary habitats serve as short-term migration corridors for both species. However, some steelhead populations used lagoon habitat in south-coast watersheds. While both species are epipelagic, Atlantic salmon exhibit more vertical migration. Atlantic salmon tend to follow migratory highways—relatively narrow bands along the coastal shelf, then crossing the Atlantic to feed inshore and in fjords of West Greenland. Conversely, steelhead exit the coastal shelf quickly, dispersing across the Pacific, and rarely use coastal environments. Despite inhabiting rivers in warm dry Mediterranean climates, the extended range and stability of southern steelhead distribution is likely buffered by cool upwelled waters of the California Current. Whereas Atlantic salmon populations are restricted by warmer Northwest Atlantic circulation patterns lacking cool upwelling with greater susceptibility to warming associated with climate change. Determining the rate of marine habitat changes in the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans is important to the conservation of these species, including subtleties of temporal and spatial habitat use, and adaptability to ocean ecosystems under climate change.


Atlantic salmon Steelhead Estuary Marine habitat Pacific Ocean Atlantic Ocean Climate change