Estuarine benthic habitats serve as essential feeding grounds for demersal finfishes and shellfishes and provide a link between the water column and demersal fisheries in coastal foodwebs. We hypothesize that the cascading linkages of water-column conditions to benthic invertebrates and from benthic invertebrates (as prey) to demersal fishes are a primary mechanism by which water-quality degradation affects sustainable production of demersal fisheries in coastal ecosystems. To evaluate these linkages, we related changes in water quality to changes in bottom-habitat quality for fishes (defined by the availability of prey resources) and assessed how changes in habitat quality affect fish diet. We examined the first link (water-column conditions to benthos) by intensively sampling the benthic community in the Neuse River Estuary, North Carolina, during 2 summers (1997 and 1998) in which depletion of bottom-water oxygen occurred. Dramatic decreases in the abundance of benthic macroinvertebrates were evident after hypoxia/anoxia in both years. Abundances of the clam Macoma balthica, a key prey item for fishes and crabs and the biomass dominant in the benthos, decreased by over 90% in deep and mid-depth areas (> 2 m) throughout the estuary after hypoxia/anoxia in 1997. Although summer decreases in benthic macroinvertebrates were also exhibited in 1998, a year of less frequent and less severe hypoxia, the magnitude of decline was less than that of 1997. To evaluate how these changes in prey abundance may affect demersal fishes, we analyzed the diet of Atlantic croaker Micropagonias undulatus, the most abundant demersal fish in the system, prior to and after summer hypoxia of 1998. This analysis demonstrated a shift in croaker diet away from clams, an abundant item before hypoxia, to less nutritional items such as plant and detrital material afterwards. This dietary shift reflects the decreased abundance of clams as a result of hypoxia/anoxia. We conclude from our study of the Neuse River Estuary that hypoxia/anoxia events degrade essential fish habitat and that this degradation has the potential to reduce the capacity of the system to support production of demersal fisheries.
|Number of pages||11|
|Journal||Marine Ecology Progress Series|
|Publication status||Published - 4 Nov 2005|