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Effects of light and water column nutrient availability on eelgrass (Zostera marina) productivity in Eeyou Istchee, eastern James Bay, Quebec

Kaleigh E. Davis*, Fanny Noisette, Jens K. Ehn, Zou Zou A. Kuzyk, Christopher J. Peck, Mary I. O’Connor

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Eelgrass (Zostera marina) meadows provide valuable ecosystem services to coastal communities. These shallow-water ecosystems in Eeyou Istchee (eastern James Bay, Quebec, Canada) support Cree ways of life by providing waterfowl foraging habitat, fish nurseries, and natural storm buffers. In 2019-2021, Eeyou Istchee eelgrass extent and shoot size remained well below historical baseline levels following a major decline in the late1990’s. We experimentally tested the potentially limiting roles of present-day nutrient and light conditions for eelgrass productivity during the growing season. We tested the hypothesis that eelgrass growth is limited by water column nutrients using in situ nutrient additions in two eelgrass meadows. Eelgrass growth rate did not respond to nutrient addition at either site. We then assessed the ability of eelgrass to grow in low light conditions by producing ex situ production-irradiance curves. Eelgrass at both sites showed no evidence of low light acclimatization with saturating irradiances of 224 and 260 µmol photons m-2 s-1 and compensation points of 31 and 61 µmol photons m-2 s-1. We observed eelgrass growth rates of about 3.8% areal growth per day during the peak growth period, which are high rates compared to a global synthesis. Together, our results suggest that Eeyou Istchee eelgrass is growing under sufficient water column nutrient levels, but suboptimal growing season water column light conditions. The short growing season in seasonally ice-covered James Bay may leave eelgrass meadows especially vulnerable to stressful conditions and extreme weather events occurring during this growth period.