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To Migrate or Not to Migrate?

By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
01/26/16 -- The fish species Oncorhynchus mykiss possesses the ability to express two different life histories (migrating to the ocean or remaining in freshwater), making it one of the most interesting yet difficult species of fish to manage. The resident form, known as rainbow trout, stays in freshwater its whole life, while the anadromous form known as steelhead migrates to the ocean. A few months ago, we reviewed a study that analyzed genetic and environmental factors that influence anadromy in Oncorhynchus mykiss (see One fish, two forms, many questions), and concluded that management plans may be favoring a life strategy of residency over anadromy. Why does it matter whether a fish migrates or remains a resident, and how do the costs and benefits to each strategy affect the long-term resiliency of the species? Diversity within a species is important when trying to adapt and survive in a changing environment. O. mykiss will display greater resilience to extreme environmental changes, such as the current drought plaguing the western United States, if they can maintain a rich diversity of genes and heritable traits.

O_mykiss, by FISHBIO
O_mykiss, photo courtesy of FISHBIO

Both anadromy and residency are valuable traits for the resilience of the species, but each also comes at a cost. As a resident form, a rainbow trout is not exposed to the gantlet of obstacles (such as intensive predation, entrainment in water pumps, or unfavorable ocean conditions) that all reduce the likelihood of a steelhead surviving its journey to the ocean and returning to spawn in its natal stream. However, resident rainbow trout will also mature at an earlier age, while anadromous steelhead are much larger when they mature and have increased energy stores that can lead to improved reproductive success (Kendall et al. 2014). But even if rainbow trout have lower reproductive success than steelhead in a given year, a residency life history tends to lead to greater survival, which increases a rainbow trout’s likelihood of successfully producing offspring over time. Both strategies have pitfalls, but also ensure that the species will continue to thrive despite environmental changes.

A group of scientists from agencies and universities in Oregon and Washington studied the tradeoffs of different life history expressions in O. mykiss. The study included nine different rivers in western North America that support self-sustaining populations of O. mykiss, and are not supplemented with hatchery fish. The scientists used rotary screw traps to capture O. mykiss migrating downstream from March–July in 2011 and 2012. They sampled about 1,600 O. mykiss for the study and measured fish forklength, removed a small fin tissue sample to later determine the sex of the fish, and collected scales to establish the fish’s age. The key finding was that outmigrating O. mykiss (which are presumed to be steelhead) are more likely to be female: on average, 65% of the fish sampled in this study were female. This suggests that size at maturation, which is a key advantage of the steelhead strategy, is more important in females than in males. If a female O. mykiss migrates to the ocean, she will have higher viable egg production when she returns to spawn, which comes with increased body size and leads to a higher reproductive success rate. For males, the limiting factor for reproduction is securing a female, and larger size does not always provide an advantage. Large males may display aggressive tactics in securing a mate, but smaller males may employ sneaking tactics to compete for a spawning female. While a complex array of factors influence whether an individual O. mykiss migrates or not, it appears males and females may benefit somewhat differently from each approach.

FISHBIO is a dedicated group of research scientists, engineers, and technicians that specialize in counting, tracking, and analyzing trends in fish and wildlife populations throughout the world. An expert staff, technical capacity, and state-of-the-art equipment make FISHBIO a trailblazer in aquatic research. For more information, please visit

Fishing Reports

A Hot Summer’s Day on Chico Creek
A Hot Summer's Day on Chico Creek, Steven T. Callan
On Patrol by Steven T. Callan
07/25/16 -- I’ve been exploring Northern California’s streams -- above and below the surface -- for most of my life. One of my most memorable adventures took place on a hot summer’s day in 1964, not long after my sixteenth...Full Story
Brownie’s Choice
Art work by Isabella Langaman
By Don Webster
Disregard the story’s title. I don’t really have a “first” name. If I did, it would probably be something like Leviathan or Behemoth or maybe Lunker. Officially, I’m a trout. A brown trout. A giant, brown trout. Possibly the biggest, fattest...Full Story
Keddie Ridge
Scouting Deerheart Lake, photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil “Flip” Akers
11/14/15 -- Adjacent to both Lake Almanor and Mountain Meadows, between the towns of Westwood and Greenville, is a seemingly forgotten piece of backcountry; Keddie Ridge – aka Ridge World – where ancient rocks... Full Story
Let’s check out the Upper Sac
Lake Siskiyou with Mt. Shasta standing sentinel. photo by Phil Akers
Article and photos by Phil "Flip" Akers
09/06/15 -- The Upper Sacramento River – The Upper Sac – begins at Lake Siskiyou’s Box Canyon Dam and continues ~37 miles downstream to Lake Shasta. It is a classic freestone river born from the Mt. Shasta and Mt. Eddy... Full Story
How to make Tuscan Tuna Salad with Fennel By Frank Galusha
05/04/15 -- OK, you went ocean fishing. If your fish is fresh or if you have processed, vacuum packed and frozen your catch properly, there are many ways to enhance your meals. Almost everything taken from the ocean is not... Full Story
German brown trout afternoon in Modoc
german brown trout in Modoc creek.
By Lea Huetteman
09/04/14 -- Catching a German Brown Trout from the creeks in Modoc County is a fine way to spend an afternoon. There are many creeks in this part of California that drain the Warner Mountains. Stream trout fishing in this region opens...Full Story
Throw the kitchen sink at them
Indian Paintbrush is a favorite wildflower that carpets wilderness landscapes. Phil Flip Akers,
Article and photos by Phil Akers
08/20/14 -- Our wilderness areas are special, where Mother Nature is landlord and natural forces operate freely. Within the wilderness you will find no roads, shelters, picnic tables, toilets, or other conveniences. You enter at...Full Story
Humboldt Bay: Busy port, excellent fishery
Woodley Island Marina, Humboldt Bay, Eureka, California
03/06/04 -- Humboldt Bay, a busy commercial harbor and home port to many charter and private offshore fishing boats, is also popular with shore-based anglers and small boaters seeking bottomfish, sharks, crabs and clams...Full Story
Pulled into the pipes: Green Sturgeon
green sturgeon
By Erin Loury, FISHBIO
03/04/14 -- [Posted with permission of FISHBIO] Living in the Sacramento River can be a risky business for juvenile green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris). The young fish must swim through a gauntlet of water... Full Story
Not Just Any Fish
California Golden Trout, California Heritage Trout Challenge, Not Just Any Fish, Phil
By Phil "Flip" Akers
02/14/13 -- Trout have inhabited California waters from the Sierra Nevada and Warner Mountains to the Pacific Ocean since prehistoric times. However, most of the trout caught by anglers are either hatchery raised fish...Full Story


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