, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 416-435,
Open Access This content is freely available online to anyone, anywhere at any time.

Food Web Structure of the Alaskan Nearshore Shelf and Estuarine Lagoons of the Beaufort Sea


The eastern Alaska Beaufort Sea coast is characterized by numerous shallow (2–5 m) estuarine lagoons, fed by streams and small rivers that drain northward from the Brooks Range through the arctic coastal plain, and bounded seaward by barrier islands and shoals. Millions of birds from six continents nest and forage during the summer period in this region using the river deltas, lagoons, and shoreline along with several species of anadromous and marine fish. We examined biogeochemical processes linking the benthic community to the overall food web structure of these poorly studied but pristine estuaries, which are largely covered by 1.8 m of ice for 10 months annually. In summer, these lagoons are relatively warm with brackish salinities (5–10°C, S = 10–25) compared to more open coastal waters (0–5°C, S > 27). The stable isotopic composition of organic materials in sediments (i.e., benthic particulate organic matter) and water column suspended particulate organic matter from both streams and lagoons are largely indistinguishable and reflect strong terrestrial contributions, based upon δ13C and δ15N values (−25.6‰ to −27.4‰ and 1.4‰ to 3.3‰, respectively). By comparison, shifts toward more heavy isotope-enriched organic materials reflecting marine influence are observed on the adjacent coastal shelf (−24.8‰ to −25.4‰ and 3.4‰ to 5.3‰, respectively). The isotopic composition of lagoon fauna is consistent with a food web dominated by omnivorous detritovores strongly dependent on microbial processing of terrestrial sources of carbon. Biomagnification of 15N in benthic organisms indicate that the benthic food web in lagoons support up to four trophic levels, with carnivorous gastropod predators and benthic fishes (δ15N values up to 14.4‰) at the apex.