Tissue toxicants and prespawn mortality in Willamette River Chinook salmon


In some Pacific salmon Oncorhynchus spp. populations, many adults die after reaching freshwater spawning sites but prior to spawning, a phenomenon known as prespawn mortality (PSM). Causal factors for PSM are often uncertain, but pathogens, warm water temperature, and environmental toxicants have been implicated in several studies. In this two-year project, we examined the relationship between toxicants and PSM in a threatened population of spring-run Chinook salmon O. tshawytscha (Walbaum) in the Willamette River, Oregon. Muscle and skin samples from 63 female carcasses were screened for ~125 potential toxicants, including trace elements, pesticides, and organohalogens. Mean concentrations for five toxicants selected for their known adverse effects on salmonids were: 4.3 (SD = 2.0) ng/g cadmium, 72.9 (122.7) ng/g nickel, 10.0 (9.0) ng/g lead, 12.7 (8.6) ng/g polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), and 17.6 (10.3) ng/g DDT (an organochlorine pesticide). Using generalized linear models, we found no statistical differences in toxicants concentrations between successful (n = 37, 58.7%) and unsuccessful (n = 26, 41.3%) female spawners. We conclude that selected contaminants did not provoke acute toxicity in Willamette River Chinook salmon. It remains unknown whether sub-lethal or chronic toxicant effects on adult salmon physiology or behavior have affected the fitness of this threatened population.

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Many people assisted with this studyand its successful completion was made possible through their efforts. We would like to thank: Ryan Mann, Charles Erdman, Jeff Garnett, Eric Johnson, Grant Brink, Eric Powell, Dan Joosten, Mike Turner, and Chris Noyes (University of Idaho) for assisting with field work and data collection; Greg Taylor, Doug Garletts, and Chad Helms, from the USACE Lookout Point office for field help and project coordination; Cameron Sharpe, Dan Peck, and Tim Wright, (Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife). This study was conducted under Cooperative Ecosystems Study Unit (CESU) agreement CESU W912HZ-12-2-0004 funded by the U.S. Army, Corps of Engineers (USACE), Portland District, with the assistance of Robert Wertheimer, Rich Piaskowski, David Griffith, Glen Rhett, and Deberay Carmichael.

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Correspondence to Matthew L. Keefer.

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All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed. All procedures were in accordance with the ethical standards of the University of Idaho and were approved by The University of Idaho Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (e.g., Protocol 2012–36).

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Keefer, M.L., Naughton, G.P., Clabough, T.S. et al. Tissue toxicants and prespawn mortality in Willamette River Chinook salmon. Environ Biol Fish 103, 175–183 (2020).

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  • Organohalogens
  • Pesticides
  • Pollutants
  • Prespawn mortality
  • Trace elements
  • Toxic chemicals