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Biocomplexity, Sustainability, and the Role of Small Populations

Mark ScheuerellPI: Ray Hilborn, University of Washington

Photo credit: To the right is a photo by Mark Scheuerell of grad student Jon Moore holding a chinook salmon.

To sustain healthy marine ecosystems, and the fisheries they support, it is necessary to understand the role that population structure plays in maintaining resilience to fishing pressure. For example, small populations are harbingers of range expansion and also precursors to extinction. One of the consequences of the salmon harvesting and hatchery programs in Alaska has been the loss of many small populations.

The Pew Institute has funded this research on the dynamics of small Pacific salmon populations, to gain insight on:

  1. How climate change may affect the distribution of salmon
  2. How networks of populations interact as meta-populations to influence stability and sustainability
  3. How multi-species assemblages differentially use habitats and interact, in particular how rare species interact with a dominant species
  4. The frequency of colonization and extinction
  5. The dynamics of very small populations as it relates to the dynamics of extinction

Understanding fish population structure is essential to management, conservation or restoration of any species. For the last 50 years the University of Washington has monitored the spawning escapement in the individual rivers and streams of the Wood River system and the Iliamna Lake system in southwestern Alaska. This abundance of many small populations that have been historically monitored provides a unique opportunity to understand the dynamics of small populations and their role in maintaining biocomplexity. These streams are also unique in their absence of anthropogenic habitat modification, introduced exotic species, or artificial propagation.

Hilborn et al., will identify whether there is a pattern of small populations blinking in and out and what role these small populations play in the overall biocomplexity of their species. State-of-the-art genetics techniques will be used to identify potential sources for populations of strays, or determine whether certain populations are in fact self-sustaining. The results will be useful for designing long-term strategies for sustainable fisheries management for Pacific salmon and other species with spatial population structure.

More information

Dr. Ray Hilborn is a professor in the School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences at the University of Washington specializing in natural resource management and conservation. He currently serves as an advisor to several international fisheries commissions and agencies as well as teaching graduate and undergraduate courses in conservation, fisheries stock assessment and risk analysis. He authored “Quantitative fisheries stock assessment” with Carl Walters in 1992, and “The Ecological Detective: Confronting Models with Data” with Marc Mangel in 1997.

Major areas of current and past research interest include Bayesian analysis of decision making in natural resources, adaptive management of renewable resources, the dynamics of the Serengeti ecosystem in east Africa, the role of hatcheries in management of Pacific salmon, the ability of institutions to learn from experience, statistical methods in testing dynamic ecological hypotheses, the analysis of migration and dispersal from mark–recapture data, and the ecological dynamics of fishing fleets. He is a Fellow of The Royal Society of Canada and received the Volvo Environmental Prize in 2006.

Dr. Hilborn earned his B.A. in Biology at Grinnell College in Iowa (1969), and his Ph.D. at the Department of Zoology, University of British Columbia (1974).

Dr. Hilborn's Faculty Page at University of Washington

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