MEPS 291:249-262 (2005)  -  doi:10.3354/meps291249

Habitat degradation from intermittent hypoxia: impacts on demersal fishes

Lisa A. Eby1,3,*, Larry B. Crowder1, Catherine M. McClellan1, Charles H. Peterson2, Monica J. Powers2

1Duke University Marine Laboratory, 135 Duke Marine Laboratory Road, Beaufort, North Carolina 28516, USA
2Institute of Marine Sciences, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 3407 Arendell Street, Morehead City, North Carolina 28557, USA
3Present address: Wildlife Biology Program, College of Forestry and Conservation, The University of Montana, 32 Campus Drive, Missoula, Montana 59812, USA

ABSTRACT: As eutrophication of estuaries and coastal oceans increases worldwide, the resulting expansion of hypoxic zones represents an increasingly frequent form of habitat degradation. Although impacts of prolonged hypoxia on benthic invertebrate species are well-documented, there is little understanding of how those effects subsequently influence the motile upper trophic levels in estuarine ecosystems. Quantitative nekton surveys in the Neuse River Estuary and field experiments in June and August 1999 using Atlantic croaker Micropogonias undulatus demonstrated that intermittent hypoxia decreased habitat quality for juvenile, demersal fish through 3 pathways: (1) hypoxia restricted the fishes in estuaries to shallow, oxygenated areas, where in the early part of the summer about 1/3 fewer prey resources were available. (2) This contraction of suitable habitat crowded the fish into smaller areas and may have resulted in density-dependent reduction of growth rates. (3) Most importantly, mortality of sessile infauna in deeper areas exposed to intermittent hypoxia decreased prey densities about 8-fold between the June and August experiments. Through these mechanisms, intermittent hypoxia may result in ecological crunches or bottlenecks. Field data collected from May to October in 3 yr (1998 to 2000) with differing levels of hypoxia support the conclusion that intermittent hypoxia may decrease habitat quality and result in ≥50% declines in juvenile fish growth rate. Incorporation of these indirect effects of hypoxia on juvenile growth rates into a population model demonstrated the potential for significant (~4%) reductions in population growth rate. Thus, sublethal effects of hypoxia-driven habitat degradation may impact fisheries production not only through reduced size at age, but also through reduced abundance of demersal fish populations.

KEY WORDS: Habitat degradation · Hypoxia · Micropogonias undulatus · Leiostomus xanthurus · Neuse River Estuary · Indirect effects · Population dynamics · Demersal fishes

Full text in pdf format