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Ecological requirements for pallid sturgeon reproduction and recruitment in the Missouri River—A synthesis of science, 2005 to 2012

January 21, 2016

This report is intended to synthesize the state of the scientific understanding of pallid sturgeon ecological requirements to provide recommendations for future science directions and context for Missouri River restoration and management decisions. Recruitment of pallid sturgeon has been low to non-existent throughout its range. Emerging understanding of the genetic structure of pallid sturgeon populations sets a broad framework for species and river management decisions, including decisions about managing the future genetic diversity of the species, but also decisions about where and what type of river restoration actions will be effective for subpopulations of this highly migratory species. Adult pallid sturgeon may migrate hundreds of kilometers (km) to spawn and their progeny may disperse even greater distances downstream as drifting free embryos. As a result of their complex life history pallid sturgeon naturally exploit a wide range of habitats during their life cycles. The construction of dams and reservoirs has fragmented habitats and may have shifted Missouri River subpopulations downstream. Research has not identified one primary biological or ecological constraint that appears to limit populations of the pallid sturgeon. With the present (2013) state of knowledge many life stages and life-stage transitions cannot be ruled out as contributing to recruitment failure.

Biological opinions in 2000 (and amended in 2003) presented the dominant hypotheses for recruitment failure that existed at that time. Emphasis was on the role of the flow regime, specifically spring flow pulses (“spring rises”), to condition spawning substrate and cue reproductive aggregations and migrations, and on low flows and additional slow, shallow-water area to serve as rearing habitat for age-0 to juvenile pallid sturgeon. Studies on spawning habitat dynamics have documented that habitat patches selected for spawning by fish in the Lower Missouri River (Missouri River downstream from Gavins Point Dam to the confluence with the Mississippi River) are dominantly on outside, revetted bends in the deepest, fastest, and most turbulent water. Studies in more natural habitat on the Yellowstone River have documented spawning in convergent flow in the middle of the channel on discrete patches of gravel within a sand-dominated channel, an arrangement that may be more effective in attracting aggregations of reproductive fish compared to the nearly continuous revetment on the Lower Missouri River. Pallid sturgeon spawn in the spring and early summer during periods of increasing day length. Water temperature consistently exerts a threshold effect for spawning at 16–18 °C. In addition, the role of water temperature is indicated by pauses and reversals in upstream migrations that have been associated with cold weather fronts that create a transient decrease in water temperature. From 2005 to 2012 on the Lower Missouri River, no obvious relations between flow pulses and fish movements and spawning behaviors have been apparent. However, pallid sturgeon tracking at the Upper Missouri–Yellowstone confluence indicates that in most years, most telemetered pallid sturgeon migrate out of the Missouri River and into the Yellowstone River in the June–July timeframe in association with the spring pulse. This pattern was disrupted in 2011 when a high flow pulse with warm temperatures and high turbidity emanated from the Milk River, followed by record releases from Fort Peck Dam, and 36–39 percent of the telemetered population migrated up the Upper Missouri. This result supports the hypothesis that sufficiently large flow pulses may trigger migration and aggregation but it is not clear that functional pulses are within reservoir management authorities. Notably, a pallid sturgeon free embryo was captured on the Upper Missouri River in 2011 and another single, genetically confirmed embryo was captured on the Yellowstone River in 2012.

Research on free-embryo drift has indicated the potential for hundreds of miles of downstream dispersal. Lack of distance to accommodate the extended downstream dispersal period of free embryos on the Upper Missouri and Yellowstone Rivers is the predominant hypothesis for recruitment failure in the upper basin. Long drift distances in the Lower Missouri River may be responsible for shifting Lower Missouri River sub-populations further into the Middle Mississippi River. Physical understanding of drift processes indicates that mean velocities could be slowed through decreased discharges or increased channel hydraulic radius (width and topographic diversity) to reduce free-embryo dispersal distances. In addition, the probability that free embryos are transported into and retained in channel-margin habitats is theoretically amenable to channel re-engineering that would increase cross-channel secondary currents in bends or channel expansions. Considerable uncertainty persists, however, about whether extended drift of Lower Missouri River larvae is responsible for recruitment failure. If drift distance is limiting, it is important to discern whether it would be advisable to retain larvae within the Missouri River, and where along the river restoration projects should be placed to optimize survival and growth of age-0 and juvenile sturgeon.

Longitudinal differences in female pallid sturgeon fecundity lend support to the hypothesis that recruitment failure may be due, in part, to fish having insufficient nutrition to produce the numbers of gametes needed for the population to grow, perhaps because of simultaneous declines in prey-fish populations and their habitats. Establishing a chain of causality from habitat decline, to prey-fish populations, to sturgeon diets, to sturgeon fecundity, and to pallid sturgeon population growth presents a considerable scientific challenge.

In addition to the dominant hypotheses relating pallid sturgeon populations to changes in flow regime and channel morphology, other factors have been identified that might be sources of stress and contribute to recruitment failure. Among these are water quality and contaminants. Ambient water-quality monitoring on the Missouri River has demonstrated summer episodes when dissolved oxygen dips below 5 milligrams per liter, a threshold that may be stressful especially to age-0 and juvenile sturgeon. Documented cases of intersex in shovelnose and pallid sturgeon indicate that agricultural and municipal sources of endocrine disrupting chemicals also may have a role in pallid sturgeon recruitment failure.

Scientific understanding of the ecological requirements of pallid sturgeon has increased almost exponentially in the last two decades, and efforts are now turning from understanding fundamental biology of the species to quantifying how population dynamics relate to potential management actions. Progress in developing the science needed to inform management actions on the Missouri River may benefit from continuation of monitoring of reproductive cycles, reproductive movements, growth, and survival of telemetry tagged adults, increased emphasis on focused, complementary field and laboratory studies of factors influencing early life history, implementation of studies to resolve the role of food limitations in growth, survival, and reproductive condition, and implementation of studies designed specifically to parameterize models linking management to populations.

Publication Year 2016
Title Ecological requirements for pallid sturgeon reproduction and recruitment in the Missouri River—A synthesis of science, 2005 to 2012
DOI 10.3133/sir20155145
Authors Aaron J. Delonay, Kimberly A. Chojnacki, Robert B. Jacobson, Janice L. Albers, Patrick J. Braaten, Edward A. Bulliner, Caroline M. Elliott, Susannah O. Erwin, David B Fuller, Justin D. Haas, Hallie L.A. Ladd, Gerald E. Mestl, Diana M. Papoulias, Mark L. Wildhaber
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Scientific Investigations Report
Series Number 2015-5145
Index ID sir20155145
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Columbia Environmental Research Center