Buelow, J., and C. M. Moffitt. 2015. Physiological indices of seawater readiness in postspawning steelhead kelts. Ecology of Freshwater Fish 24:112-122.
Management goals to improve the recovery of steelhead (Oncorhynchus mykiss) stocks at risk of extinction include increasing the proportion of post spawning fish that survive and spawn again. To be successful, post-spawning steelhead (kelts) migrating downstream to the ocean must prepare physiologically and physically for a seawater transition. We sampled blood, gill filaments, and evaluated the external condition of migrating kelts from an ESA-listed population in the Snake/Columbia River system over two consecutive years to evaluate their physiological readiness for transition to seawater. We chose attributes often considered as measures of preparation for seawater in juveniles, including gill Na+K+ ATPase activity, plasma electrolytes, and hormones to consider factors related to external condition, size and sex. We found kelts in good external condition had plasma profiles similar to downstream migrating smolts. In addition, we found more than 80% of kelts ranked in good external condition had smolt-like body silvering. We compared measures from migrating kelts with samples obtained from hatchery fish at the time of spawning to confirm that Na+, K+-ATPase activity in kelts was significantly elevated over spawning fish. We found significant differences in gill Na+, K+ ATPase activity in migrating kelts between the years of sampling, but little indication of influence of fish condition. We conclude that the post spawning steelhead sampled exhibited a suite of behaviors, condition and physiology characteristic of fish prepared for successful transition to a seawater environment.