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The role of large, glaciated tributaries in cooling an important Pacific salmon migration corridor: a study of the Babine River

Abstract

Climate change and its associated symptoms, such as warming air temperatures, glacier retreat, reduced snowpack, and increased variability in precipitation, are warming rivers and lakes. Such warming water temperatures threaten cold-water fishes in some regions. For instance, warm water temperatures can kill or harm anadromous Pacific salmon as they migrate upstream to spawning grounds. In this study, we assessed how tributaries, and their relative watershed properties, shape temporal and spatial dynamics of temperatures during the summer months in a salmon migratory river. We focused on the mainstem of the Babine River of British Columbia, an important migratory corridor for steelhead and the five eastern Pacific salmon species, but particularly for sockeye salmon that spawn in stream reaches above the Babine Lake, at the river’s headwaters. We discovered that large glacier- and snowpack-fed tributaries cooled the Babine River by approximately 2 °C over its 96 km length. Different tributaries played different temperature functions. Cooler and more glacierized rivers were associated with a bigger change in temperature between upstream and downstream sites. Understanding how water temperatures change during adult salmon migration, especially within riverscapes on the edge of potentially harmful temperatures, can help inform proactive management options in a warming world.

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Data availability

Open datasets used are referenced throughout the manuscript. All other data, material, and code are available upon request.

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Acknowledgements

We gratefully acknowledge funding from the Liber Ero Foundation, which provided the opportunity to conduct research on the remote Babine River, British Columbia. We are grateful for Skeena Watershed Conservation Coalition, Alfred Schaefer, Morag Gibb, Todd James, Ben Pittman, Ciara Sharpe, and Ali Howard for safely navigating us down the river by raft or kayak. We are grateful for Babine Norlakes Steelhead camp and Silver Hilton Steelhead lodges for assisting in logger placement and retrieval. Thank you to Kenny Rabnett for providing endless knowledge of the Skeena River watershed. Kara Pitman was supported by National Science and Engineering Research Council and Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies. We are extremely grateful for Gitxsan and Lake Babine Nations for permitting us to conduct research within their traditional territories.

Funding

This work was financially supported by the Liber Ero Foundation funding agency. Kara J. Pitman was supported by National Science and Engineering Research Council and Association of Canadian Universities for Northern Studies.

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All authors contributed to the study conception and design. Material preparation, data collection, and analysis were performed by Kara J. Pitman. The first draft of the manuscript was written by Kara J. Pitman, and Jonathan W. Moore commented on previous versions of the manuscript. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

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Correspondence to Kara J. Pitman.

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Pitman, K.J., Moore, J.W. The role of large, glaciated tributaries in cooling an important Pacific salmon migration corridor: a study of the Babine River. Environ Biol Fish 104, 1263–1277 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10641-021-01152-1

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Keywords

  • Pacific salmon
  • Oncorhynchus
  • Babine River
  • Water temperature
  • Climate change
  • Riverscape