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Changing with the tides: fine-scale larval fish prey availability and predation pressure near a tidally-modulated river plume

Kelsey Swieca*, Su Sponaugle, Christian BriseƱo-Avena, Moritz S. Schmid, Richard D. Brodeur, Robert K. Cowen

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Tidally-controlled river plumes form distinct frontal boundaries that can alter the spatial distributions of larval fishes and their planktonic prey and predators. Variable in nature, they may expose larval fishes to different trophic environments over small spatio-temporal scales, with unknown consequences for survival and recruitment. In the northern California Current (NCC), the Columbia River Plume (CRP) is strongly influenced by twice-daily freshwater injections that create a highly dynamic coastal environment. Using the In situ Ichthyoplankton Imaging System (ISIIS), we examined changes in the fine-scale horizontal and vertical distributions of larval fishes, their prey, and their predators over space and time (ebb/flood tide). In total, 6095 fish larvae and ~1.5 M prey/predator zooplankton were imaged and measured. Plume regions provided substantially higher concentrations of prey and enhanced spatial overlap between larval fishes and their prey relative to oceanic waters. The functionality of river plumes as a refuge from predators was less clear. Predator concentrations were also higher in plume regions, but overlap with larval fishes was taxon-specific and varied with the tide. Notably, regions of high zooplankton concentrations did not necessarily confer high spatial overlap on small scales (meters vertical, kms horizontal) relevant to trophic interactions. Surface salinity and chl-a were the most important factors influencing the spatial overlap of zooplankton with larval fishes. In the vicinity of river plumes, larval fishes experience a diversity of unique prey and predator fields over short spatio-temporal scales, which likely contribute to variable growth and mortality patterns at much finer scales than previously thought.