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Marine Ecology Progress Series

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MEPS 243:39-55 (2002)  -  doi:10.3354/meps243039

Effects of freshwater flow on abundance of estuarine organisms: physical effects or trophic linkages?

W. J. Kimmerer*

Romberg Tiburon Center, San Francisco State University, 3152 Paradise Drive, Tiburon, California 94920, USA

ABSTRACT: All ecosystems are influenced by physical forcing. Estuarine ecosystems respond most strongly on an interannual timescale to variability in freshwater flow. Several mechanisms for positive or negative flow effects on biological populations in estuaries have been proposed; however, positive effects appear to operate mainly through stimulation of primary production with effects propagating up the food web. In the northern San Francisco Estuary, abundance or survival of several common species of fish and shrimp varied positively with flow-in data through 1992. I re-examined these relationships and those of several additional taxa in an analysis of long-term (20 to 40 yr) monitoring data. The spread of the introduced clam Potamocorbula amurensis in 1987 provided an opportunity to examine simultaneously the responses of estuarine species to flow and to changes in the food web. I separated variability into a flow response, a step change after 1987 and other sources of variability. Responses of fish and shrimp contrasted with those of lower trophic levels. All but 1 species of nekton responded positively to flow, only 2 had clear declines after 1987, and none of the relationships changed in slope after 1987. In contrast with the higher trophic levels, chlorophyll a (chl a) and several species of zooplankton declined markedly after 1987, and had either weak responses to flow or responses that changed after 1987. Thus, the food web appears strongly coupled between benthos and plankton, and weakly coupled between zooplankton and fish, as has been found in other systems. More importantly, the variation with freshwater flow of abundance or survival of organisms in higher trophic levels apparently did not occur through upward trophic transfer, since a similar relationship was lacking in most of the data on lower trophic levels. Rather, this variation may occur through attributes of physical habitat that vary with flow.

KEY WORDS: Estuary · Food web · Freshwater flow · Salinity · Introduced species

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