Abundance of the young-of-the-year (YOY) fish can vary greatly among years and it may be driven by several key biological processes (i.e. adult spawning, egg survival and fry survival) that span several months. However, the relative influence of seasonal weather patterns on YOY abundance is poorly understood.
We assessed the importance of seasonal air temperature (a surrogate for stream temperature) and precipitation (a surrogate for stream flow) on brook trout (Salvelinus fontinalis) YOY summer abundance using a 29-year data set from 115 sites in Shenandoah National Park, Virginia, U.S.A. We used a Bayesian hierarchical model that allowed the effect of seasonal weather covariates to vary among sites and accounted for imperfect detection of individuals.
Summer YOY abundance was affected by preceding seasonal air temperature and precipitation, and these regional-scale drivers led to spatial synchrony in YOY abundance dynamics across the 170-km-long study area. Mean winter precipitation had the greatest effect on YOY abundance and the relationship was negative. Mean autumn precipitation, and winter and spring temperature had significantly positive effects on YOY abundance, and mean autumn temperature had a significant negative effect. In addition, the effect of summer precipitation differed along a latitudinal gradient, with YOY abundance at more northern sites being more responsive to inter-annual variation in summer precipitation.
Strong YOY years resulted in high abundance of adults (>age 1 + fish) in the subsequent year at more than half of sites. However, higher adult abundance did not result in higher YOY abundance in the subsequent year at any of the study sites (i.e. no positive stock–recruitment relationship).
Our results indicate that YOY abundance is a key driver of brook trout population dynamics that is mediated by seasonal weather patterns. A reliable assessment of climate change impacts on brook trout needs to account for how alternations in seasonal weather patterns impact YOY abundance and how such relationships may differ across the range of brook trout distribution.