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Links Between Fluctuations in Sockeye Salmon Abundance and Riparian Forest Productivity Identified by Remote Sensing

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Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) carcasses can fertilize riparian forests with marine-derived nutrients when populations make their annual return to natal streams to spawn; however, the strength of this cross-system linkage likely varies substantially among years due to the interannual fluctuations in abundance that characterize most salmon populations. Here, we used a 36-yr time series (1984–2019) of satellite imagery and salmon abundance estimates to assess spatiotemporal associations between forest greenness (a measure of plant productivity) and adult sockeye salmon (Oncorhynchus nerka) abundance in the lower Adams River, British Columbia, Canada. The Adams River sockeye population displays a quadrennial pattern of abundance, with a dominant cohort that spawns every four years in numbers that are typically two to three orders of magnitude larger than non-dominant cohorts. We found that variation in forest greenness was consistently explained best by models including dominant cohort year, whereas models lacking an index of salmon abundance were the lowest-ranked. Greenness of riparian vegetation increased by an average of 0.015 NDVI units (approximately 1%) in the summer after a dominant cohort return, and this effect on greenness persisted into the subsequent fall (11–13 months after spawning). The positive association between quadrennial pulses of salmon and riparian greenness occurred in plots both within 30 m of the stream and 95–125 m away from the stream, indicating that the spatial extent of fertilization may occur well beyond areas directly adjacent to the riverbank. These results suggest that forests respond to cyclical variation in salmon abundance and that overwinter storage of marine-derived nutrients within catchments allows plants to capitalize on these nutrients in the following growing season. Continued advances in remote sensing technology will enhance our understanding of cross-system resource linkages and can inform the ecosystem-based management of Pacific salmon.
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