, Volume 34, Issue 4, pp 663-674
Date: 28 Jul 2010

Food Web Structure and Habitat Connectivity in Fish Estuarine Nurseries—Impact of River Flow

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Abstract

River flow variability is known to influence estuarine production, yet knowledge on its effect upon estuarine food webs dynamics is still scarce. Stable carbon and nitrogen isotopes were used to assess the effect of river flow in the connectivity and food web interactions between the two main fish nursery areas of the Tagus estuary. The aims of the present work were to investigate the seasonal variation in food web structure and the exchange rate of individuals of marine juvenile fish among estuarine nurseries, to compare the spring of a rainy year (2001) with that of an average year (2000), and to investigate the impact of the winter floods of 2001. A low level of connectivity was observed for the fish species that use these areas as nurseries. In low river flow conditions, two isotopically distinct food webs were established in each nursery area. These food webs were very sensitive to small variations in the freshwater input. Winter floods seem to disrupt the localized food webs that are established in low river flow periods, leading to the re-establishment of a wider food web. While in rainy years this wide food web is maintained until spring, in average years the food web undergoes fragmentation into two localized and isotopically distinctive food webs. The increase in frequency of droughts due to climate change should lower the connectivity of the estuarine fish nurseries food webs, causing habitat fragmentation and consequent loss in complexity and resilience.