Research aims to prevent further decline of Atlantic salmon

A NEW study will investigate the vulnerability of different populations of Atlantic salmon to climate change, in a bid to prevent the further decline of this ecologically, economically, and culturally important species.

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Credit: Chris Conroy, Atlantic Salmon Trust

Researchers at UHI Inverness are working in partnership with the Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Canada, to study the genetic make-up of Atlantic salmon and how different migratory populations may respond to marine and freshwater conditions, which can be affected by environmental factors like temperature and rainfall levels.

These conditions can have a significant impact on migration - the journey downstream as ‘smolts’ from where they are born, to the ocean, where they feed and grow, and then back to their home river to spawn - which needs to be precisely timed so that the salmon encounter optimal conditions.

Dr Samantha Beck will use sophisticated genetic and statistical tools to conduct the research, which will combine migration data, environmental data and genomic data using information from rod catches and fish counters, and samples from scales and fins.

Dr Beck has been awarded a Marie Skłodowska-Curie Individual Global Fellowship for the project, known as SAL-MOVE.

She explained: “I will be exploring migration timing and the environmental factors influencing salmon migration, and how these correlate with genetics, to determine what this might mean for the future of different populations of Atlantic salmon across their range. With this information we can identify which populations are most vulnerable to climate change, providing fisheries managers with the knowledge and understanding to adapt river management to support these populations and conserve numbers. The diversity of Atlantic salmon life-histories is vast, with adults maturing at different ages and returning to spawn at different times of the year. However, we know very little about the genetic basis of migration timing, especially in smolts. Results from this study will enable limited conservation resources to be targeted to those most vulnerable populations to ensure that rivers can continue to support a large diversity of Atlantic salmon.”

The numbers of Atlantic salmon returning to Scotland’s coasts have been in decline since the 1970s and many populations fail to meet conservation targets (Marine Scotland).

Brian Shaw, director of the Ness Salmon Fishery Board, said: “Anyone who has fished for, or studied, salmon knows that the one constant is that the runs are always changing. Historical run patterns have been identified but will these trends persist, given the happening, and predicted, changes in climate? This study is very timely and will help our understanding of the factors controlling this important aspect of Atlantic salmon ecology.”

Dr Beck will carry out the project in Scotland and Canada under the supervision of Dr Victoria Pritchard (UHI Inverness) and Dr Ian Bradbury (Fisheries and Oceans Canada). SAL-MOVE is funded by the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme and facilitates knowledge exchange between multiple collaborators throughout the UK, Europe and North America.

Dr Beck will spend two years in Canada learning new analytical techniques, before bringing her knowledge back to UHI Inverness for the final year of the project.

Nearly three quarters of UHI research submitted for review to the 2021 Research Excellence Framework, which assesses the quality of research in UK higher education institutions, was classified as ‘world leading’ or ‘internationally excellent.’

This latest assessment looked at a range of aspects of the work of 147 researchers across the UHI partnership. It examined the impact of their research, demonstrating how targeted research at UHI can support sustainable and inclusive economic prosperity in our communities, as well as addressing some of Scotland’s biggest challenges.