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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 164:73-82 (1998)  -  doi:10.3354/meps164073

Estuarine fronts as conduits for larval transport: hydrodynamics and spatial distribution of Dungeness crab postlarvae

David B. Eggleston1,*, David A. Armstrong2, Ward E. Elis1, William S. Patton2

1Department of Marine, Earth and Atmospheric Sciences, North Carolina State University, Raleigh, North Carolina 27695-8202, USA 2University of Washington, School of Fisheries, Box 357980, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA

Frontal zones are common hydrographic features in estuaries throughout the world, yet there is no consensus on the importance of fronts to larval transport processes. Frontal circulation may act as a 'barrier' to larval transport since it constrains cross-frontal flows, leading to strong along-frontal flows, which in turn may serve as a type of 'larval conduit' by funneling larvae collected at the front to settlement locations. We examined the larval conduit hypothesis by characterizing hydrodynamic features of apparent frontal structure in Grays Harbor estuary (Washington, USA) and quantifying the effects of frontal structure on the distribution and transport potential of Dungeness crab Cancer magister megalopae during spring-time recruitment pulses. CTD casts made perpendicular to fronts indicated that frontal structure was characteristic of buoyant plume and axial convergent fronts at the bay mouth and at a subtidal channel site within the estuary, respectively. Surface drifters deployed seaward of a front at the bay mouth during early flood tide were advected into the front, demonstrating convergent circulation. Surface drifters remained within buoyant plume fronts, which moved up-estuary during flood tide at 0.4 m s-1, and were then entrained in axial convergent fronts. Drifters moved an average of 10 km up-estuary during a single flood tide; the direction that drifters tracked corresponded to prevailing winds. The mean concentration of megalopae, as measured with neuston nets, was significantly higher in fronts than in adjacent water, 20 to 30 m upstream of the front, irrespective of year or location within the estuary. Paired plankton nets deployed at the bay mouth during flood tide indicated that the mean concentration and flux of megalopae was higher at the surface than at 3 to 4 m depth; this trend was significant for megalopal flux. Variable wind stress during the recruitment period of Dungeness crab, combined with the suggested effect of fronts serving as larval conduits whose direction of transport is influenced by prevailing winds, could significantly influence spatial variation in postlarval supply and subsequent settlement within the estuary.

Cancer magister · Drifters · Dungeness crab · Estuarine hydrodynamics · Fronts · Larval transport · Recruitment

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