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Seasonal and interannual variability of phytoplankton abundance and community composition on the Central Coast of California

Alex Barth, Ryan K. Walter, Ian Robbins, Alexis Pasulka*

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Variations in the abundance and composition of phytoplankton greatly impact ecosystem structure and function. Within the California Current System (CCS), phytoplankton community structure is tightly coupled to seasonal variability in wind-driven coastal upwelling, a process that drives changes to coastal water temperatures and nutrient concentrations. Based on approximately a decade (2008–2018) of weekly phytoplankton measurements, this study provides the first characterization of the seasonal and interannual variability of phytoplankton abundance and composition in San Luis Obispo (SLO) Bay, an understudied region within the CCS. Overall, the average year seasonality of phytoplankton in SLO Bay mirrored that of the larger CCS; diatoms dominated the community during the spring upwelling season, whereas dinoflagellates dominated the community during the fall relaxation period. While we observed considerable interannual variability among phytoplankton taxa, of particular note was the absence of a fall dinoflagellate-dominated period from 2010–2013, followed by the return of the fall dinoflagellate-dominated period in 2014. This compositional shift coincided with a major phase shift of both the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) and North Pacific Gyre Oscillation (NPGO). In addition to exerting a strong influence on the seasonality of phytoplankton community succession and transition between diatom- and dinoflagellate-dominated periods, the state of both the PDO and NPGO also influenced the extent to which environmental conditions (temperature and upwelling winds) could predict community type. These results highlight the importance of long-term datasets and the consideration of large-scale climate patterns when assessing local ecosystem dynamics.