Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 35, Issue 2, pp 603–621 | Cite as

Life Histories, Salinity Zones, and Sublethal Contributions of Contaminants to Pelagic Fish Declines Illustrated with a Case Study of San Francisco Estuary, California, USA

  • Marjorie L. BrooksEmail author
  • Erica Fleishman
  • Larry R. Brown
  • Peggy W. Lehman
  • Inge Werner
  • Nathaniel Scholz
  • Carys Mitchelmore
  • James R. Lovvorn
  • Michael L. Johnson
  • Daniel Schlenk
  • Suzanne van Drunick
  • James I. Drever
  • David M. Stoms
  • Alex E. Parker
  • Richard Dugdale


Human effects on estuaries are often associated with major decreases in abundance of aquatic species. However, remediation priorities are difficult to identify when declines result from multiple stressors with interacting sublethal effects. The San Francisco Estuary offers a useful case study of the potential role of contaminants in declines of organisms because the waters of its delta chronically violate legal water quality standards; however, direct effects of contaminants on fish species are rarely observed. Lack of direct lethality in the field has prevented consensus that contaminants may be one of the major drivers of coincident but unexplained declines of fishes with differing life histories and habitats (anadromous, brackish, and freshwater). Our review of available evidence indicates that examining the effects of contaminants and other stressors on specific life stages in different seasons and salinity zones of the estuary is critical to identifying how several interacting stressors could contribute to a general syndrome of declines. Moreover, warming water temperatures of the magnitude projected by climate models increase metabolic rates of ectotherms, and can hasten elimination of some contaminants. However, for other pollutants, concurrent increases in respiratory rate or food intake result in higher doses per unit time without changes in the contaminant concentrations in the water. Food limitation and energetic costs of osmoregulating under altered salinities further limit the amount of energy available to fish; this energy must be redirected from growth and reproduction toward pollutant avoidance, enzymatic detoxification, or elimination. Because all of these processes require energy, bioenergetics methods are promising for evaluating effects of sublethal contaminants in the presence of other stressors, and for informing remediation. Predictive models that evaluate the direct and indirect effects of contaminants will be possible when data become available on energetic costs of exposure to contaminants given simultaneous exposure to non-contaminant stressors.


Susceptibility to toxins Bioenergetic costs Impaired waterways Multiple stressors Pelagic organism decline Climate change Review 



We thank James Orlando, Kelly Smalling, and several anonymous reviewers for helpful comments. This work was supported by cooperative agreement number 113325G004 between the University of California–Santa Barbara and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, and conducted as part of a working group convened in part at the National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis.


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Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marjorie L. Brooks
    • 1
    Email author
  • Erica Fleishman
    • 2
    • 3
  • Larry R. Brown
    • 4
  • Peggy W. Lehman
    • 5
  • Inge Werner
    • 6
    • 7
  • Nathaniel Scholz
    • 8
  • Carys Mitchelmore
    • 9
  • James R. Lovvorn
    • 1
  • Michael L. Johnson
    • 10
  • Daniel Schlenk
    • 11
  • Suzanne van Drunick
    • 12
  • James I. Drever
    • 13
  • David M. Stoms
    • 2
  • Alex E. Parker
    • 14
  • Richard Dugdale
    • 14
  1. 1.Department of ZoologySouthern Illinois UniversityCarbondaleUSA
  2. 2.Bren School of Environmental Science and ManagementUniversity of CaliforniaSanta BarbaraUSA
  3. 3.John Muir Institute of the Environment, The BarnUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  4. 4.U.S. Geological SurveyCalifornia Water Science CenterSacramentoUSA
  5. 5.California Department of Water Resources, Division of Environmental ServicesWest SacramentoUSA
  6. 6.Aquatic Toxicology Laboratory, Department of Anatomy, Physiology, and Cell Biology, School of Veterinary MedicineUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  7. 7.Swiss Centre for Applied EcotoxicologyDübendorfSwitzerland
  8. 8.NOAA Fisheries, Northwest Fisheries Science Center, Environmental Conservation DivisionSeattleUSA
  9. 9.Chesapeake Biological LaboratoryUniversity of Maryland Center for Environmental ScienceSolomonsUSA
  10. 10.Center for Watershed SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaDavisUSA
  11. 11.Department of Environmental SciencesUniversity of CaliforniaRiversideUSA
  12. 12.Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Science (CIRES)University of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA
  13. 13.Department of Geology and Geophysics, Department 3006University of WyomingLaramieUSA
  14. 14.Romberg Tiburon Center for Environmental StudiesSan Francisco State UniversityTiburonUSA

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