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Otolith-based approaches indicate strong effects of environmental variation on growth of a critically endangered estuarine fish

Levi S. Lewis*, Christian Denney, Malte Willmes, Wilson Xieu, Rachel Fichman, Feng Zhao, Bruce Hammock, Andrew Schultz, Nann Fangue, James A. Hobbs

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: In estuaries, fluctuating environmental conditions exact strenuous physiological demands on the fishes that call these oft-impacted habitats their home, including California’s critically endangered delta smelt Hypomesus transpacificus. Using an archive of otoliths spanning 2011–2019, we examined how growth rates of wild subadult delta smelt vary ontogenetically, regionally, and in relation to variation in the physical environment during late-summer and fall in the upper San Francisco Estuary. Recent growth rates were quantified using otolith increment analysis and modeled as functions of both intrinsic (age) and extrinsic (temperature, salinity, clarity, and region) factors using a suite of generalized additive models. Age explained 60% of the variation in log10-transformed growth rates, which peaked at 50–80 days post-hatch. Overall, age-adjusted growth rates declined at temperatures >20°C, increased with practical salinity values of 0–4, and exhibited interactive patterns with water clarity. Growth rates appeared highest in the West and Central Delta, and lowest in the North Delta, also corresponding with patterns in environmental conditions. Here, we provide new evidence for how vital rates of wild delta smelt vary spatially and in relation to abiotic environmental variation. Such otolith-based growth reconstructions often provide the first direct look at how the vital rates of wild fish respond to environmental variation in situ, and how future changes are likely to affect the dynamics of wild populations.