Hypoxia vulnerability in the salmon watersheds of Southeast Alaska

The frequency of dissolved oxygen depletion events (hypoxia) in coastal aquatic ecosystems has risen dramatically since the late 20th century, yet the causes and consequences of hypoxia for some culturally and economically important species remain poorly understood. In rivers, oxygen depletion can be caused by high densities of spawning Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) consuming oxygen faster than can be replaced by reaeration. This process may be exacerbated when salmon densities are artificially inflated, such as when hatchery-origin salmon stray into rivers instead of returning to hatcheries. In Southeast Alaska, hatchery salmon production has increased rapidly since the 1970s, with over 553 million chum salmon (O. keta) and 64 million pink salmon (O. gorbuscha) released in 2021 alone. Straying is pervasive in streams with outlets <25 km from nearshore marine hatchery release sites. Using a previously ground-truthed mechanistic model of dissolved oxygen dynamics, we examined how water temperature and low-flow channel hydraulics contribute to hypoxia vulnerability. We then applied the model to predict hypoxia vulnerability for watersheds within 25 km of hatchery salmon release points, where straying salmon spawner densities are expected to be higher and promote dissolved oxygen depletion. Our model predicted that low-gradient stream reaches, regardless of water temperature, are the most prone to hypoxia due to low reaeration rates. Our spatial analysis determined that nearly 17,000 km of anadromous-accessible stream reaches are vulnerable to high densities of hatchery-origin salmon based on 2021 release sites. To our knowledge, this study is the first to map the spatial variation of hypoxia vulnerability in anadromous watersheds, identify habitat conditions most likely to promote hypoxia, and provide a repeatable analytical approach to identify hypoxia-prone stream reaches that can be updated as empirical data sets improve.


Sergeant, C. J., Bellmore, J. R., Bellmore, R. A., Falke, J. A., Mueter, F. J., & Westley, P. A.. 2023. Hypoxia vulnerability in the salmon watersheds of Southeast Alaska. Science of the Total Environment. 896: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.165247.