Estuaries and Coasts

, Volume 35, Issue 3, pp 799–810 | Cite as

The Role of Submerged Aquatic Vegetation in Structuring the Nearshore Fish Community Within an Estuary of the Southern Gulf of St. Lawrence

  • Allison Schein
  • Simon C. Courtenay
  • Cindy S. Crane
  • Kevin L. Teather
  • Michael R. van den HeuvelEmail author


Artificial fertilizers are contributing to the replacement of eelgrass (Zostera marina) by sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) in estuaries of Prince Edward Island (PEI), Canada. In this study, we found that the nearshore fish community differed between areas dominated by these two vegetations within an estuary in every month sampled (April–August). Adult northern pipefish (Syngnathus fuscus), threespine stickleback (Gasterosteus aculeatus), blackspotted stickleback (Gasterosteus wheatlandi), and Atlantic silverside (Menidia menidia) were most strongly associated with eelgrass, while mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus), ninespine stickleback (Pungitius pungitius), and American eel (Anguilla rostrata) were often more numerous in sea lettuce. Sea lettuce stations tended to have more young-of-the-year mummichog, fourspine stickleback (Apeltes quadracus), and Gasterosteus sp. than eelgrass stations but fewer young-of-the-year northern pipefish and Atlantic silverside. Fish richness and abundance were significantly lower in the sea lettuce than eelgrass habitat during August when benthic hypoxia occurred. We conclude that the loss of eelgrass from PEI estuaries will result in significant declines in fish biodiversity.


Macroalgae Eelgrass Seagrass Fish community Eutrophication Habitat 



Fieldwork would not have been possible without the help of Jennifer van der Lee, Alex Campbell, Christina Pater, and Joubin Saffary. Marie-Hélène Thériault, Aquatic Science Biologist, Department of Fisheries and Oceans, processed the sediment samples. Funding was provided by a Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada postgraduate scholarship to AS, Aquanet funds to MvdH, Canada Research Chair funding to MvdH, and by the Province of Prince Edward Island.

Conflict of Interest Notification Page

This manuscript has been read and approved by all authors listed on the title page, and all authors have made a substantial contribution to one or more of the design, execution, and reporting of the scientific study. All sources of financial support for the work are described in the acknowledgements of the paper, and none of the authors holds any financial interests in any reported findings. Beyond employment with the institutions listed on the title page and receiving NSERC grants and scholarships, none of the authors has a financial relationship with the organizations that supported the research, and no future benefit is anticipated from these or any other source as a result of this work. The authors have full control of all primary data and will make those data available to the journal for review upon request. We are unaware of any potential conflicts of interest.


  1. Adger, W.N., T.P. Hughes, C. Folke, S.R. Carpenter, and J. Rockstrom. 2005. Social-ecological resilience to coastal disasters. Science 309: 1036–1039.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Bricker, S.B., J.G. Ferreira, and T. Simas. 2003. An integrated methodology for assessment of estuarine trophic status. Ecological Modelling 169: 39–60.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Clarke, K.R., and R.M. Warwick. 2001. Change in marine communities: An approach to statistical analysis and interpretation, 2nd ed. Plymouth: PRIMER-E.Google Scholar
  4. Deegan, L.A. 2002. Lessons learned: the effects of nutrient enrichment on the support of nekton by seagrass and salt marsh ecosystems. Estuaries 25: 727–742.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Deegan, L.A., A. Wright, S.G. Ayvazian, J.T. Finn, H. Golden, R.R. Merson, and J. Harrison. 2002. Nitrogen loading alters seagrass ecosystem structure and support of higher trophic levels. Aquatic Conservation: Marine and Freshwater Ecosystems 12: 193–212.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  6. Department of Fisheries and Oceans. 2009. Does eelgrass (Zostera marina) meet the criteria as an ecologically significant species? DFO Canadian Science Advisory Secretariat Science Advisory Report 2009/018.Google Scholar
  7. Finley, M.A., S.C. Courtenay, K.L. Teather, and M.R. van den Heuvel. 2010. Assessment of Northern mummichog (Fundulus heteroclitus macrolepidotus) as an estuarine pollution monitoring species. Water Quality Research Journal of Canada 44: 323–332.Google Scholar
  8. Fox, S.E., M. Teichberg, Y.S. Olsen, L. Heffner, and I. Valiela. 2009. Restructuring of benthic communities in eutrophic estuaries: Lower abundance of prey leads to trophic shifts from omnivory to grazing. Marine Ecology Progress Series 380: 43–57.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Halpin, P.M., and K.L. Martin. 1999. Aerial respiration in the salt marsh fish Fundulus heteroclitus (Fundulidae). Copeia 3: 743–748.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. Heck, K.L., G. Hays, and R.J. Orth. 2003. Critical evaluation of the nursery role hypothesis for seagrass meadows. Marine Ecology Progress Series 253: 123–136.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Higgins, R.P., and H. Thiel. 1988. Introduction to the study of meiofauna. Washington: Smithsonian Institution Press.Google Scholar
  12. Hughes, J.E., L.A. Deegan, J.C. Wyda, M.J. Weaver, and A. Wright. 2002. The effects of eelgrass habitat loss on estuarine fish communities of southern New England. Estuaries 25: 235–249.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Hunter-Thomson, K., J. Hughes, and B. Williams. 2002. Estuarine-open-water comparison of fish community structure in eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) habitats of Cape Cod. The Biological Bulletin 203: 247–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Joseph, V., A. Locke, and J.J.-G. Godin. 2006. Spatial distribution of fishes and decapods in eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) and sandy habitats of a New Brunswick estuary, eastern Canada. Aquatic Ecology 40: 111–123.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Landman, M.J., N. Ling, and M.R. van den Heuvel. 2005. Relative sensitivities of common freshwater fish and invertebrates to acute hypoxia. New Zealand Journal of Marine and Freshwater Research 39: 1061–1067.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Lazzari, M.A., S. Sherman, and J.K. Kanwit. 2003. Nursery use of shallow habitats by epibenthic fishes in Maine nearshore waters. Estuarine, Coastal and Shelf Science 56: 73–84.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Lotze, H.K., H.S. Lenihan, B.J. Bourque, R.H. Bradbury, R.G. Cooke, M.C. Kay, S.M. Kidwell, M.X. Kirby, C.H. Peterson, and J.B.C. Jackson. 2006. Depletion, degradation, and recovery potential of estuaries and coastal seas. Science 312: 1806–1809.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Lubbers, L., W.R. Boynton, and W.M. Kemp. 1990. Variations in structure of estuarine fish communities in relation to abundance of submersed vascular plants. Marine Ecology Progress Series 65: 1–14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  19. Meng, L., C.D. Orphanides, and J.C. Powell. 2002. Use of a fish index to assess habitat quality in Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island. Transactions of the American Fisheries Society 131: 731–742.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Orth, R.J., K.L. Heck, and J. van Montfrans. 1984. Faunal communities in seagrass beds—A review of the influence of plant structure and prey characteristics on predator prey relationships. Estuaries 7: 339–350.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. PEI Department of Agriculture. 2008. Agriculture on Prince Edward Island. Government of PEI, Canada. Accessed 4 May 2009.
  22. Preisser, M.C., and L.A. Deegan. 1995. Effect of changing plant morphology on invertebrate susceptibility to predation in eelgrass beds. The Biological Bulletin 189: 242–243.Google Scholar
  23. Raymond, B.G., C.S. Crane, and D.K. Cairns. 2002. Nutrient and chlorophyll trends in Prince Edward Island estuaries. pp. 142-153 In: Cairns, D.K. (Ed.). 2002. Effects of landuse practices on fish, shellfish, and their habitats on Prince Edward Island. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences No. 2408.Google Scholar
  24. Schein, A. 2009. The estuarine fish community and food web structure in areas of sea lettuce (Ulva lactuca) and eelgrass (Zostera marina) within the Stanley River estuary, Prince Edward Island. MSc Thesis. University of Prince Edward Island, Charlottetown, PEI.Google Scholar
  25. Stierhoff, K.L., T.E. Targett, and P.A. Grecay. 2003. Hypoxia tolerance of the mummichog: the role of access to the water surface. Journal of Fish Biology 63: 580–592.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Valiela, I., J. Costa, K. Foreman, J.M. Teal, B. Howes, and D. Aubrey. 1990. Transport of groundwater-borne nutrients from watersheds and their effects on coastal waters. Biogeochemistry 10: 177–197.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Valiela, I., K. Foreman, M. Lamontagne, D. Hersh, J. Costa, P. Peckol, B. DeMeo-Andreson, C. D’Avanzo, M. Babione, C.-H. Sham, J. Brawley, and K. Lajtha. 1992. Couplings of watersheds and coastal waters: Sources and consequences of nutrient enrichment in Waquoit bay, Massachusetts. Estuaries 15: 443–457.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Valiela, I., J. McClelland, J. Hauxwell, P.J. Behr, D. Hersh, and K. Foreman. 1997. Macroalgal blooms in shallow estuaries: Controls and ecophysiological and ecosystem consequences. Limnology and Oceanography 42: 1105–1118.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Weldon, J., D. Garbary, S. Courtenay, W. Ritchie, C. Godin, M-H. Thériault, M. Boudreau, and A. Lapenna. 2005. The community aquatic monitoring project (CAMP) for measuring marine environmental health in coastal waters of the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence: 2004 overview. Canadian Technical Report of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, Issue no. 2624.Google Scholar
  30. Whitall, D., S. Bricker, J. Ferreira, A.M. Nobre, T. Simas, and M. Silva. 2007. Assessment of eutrophication in estuaries: pressure-state-response and nitrogen source apportionment. Environmental Management 40: 678–690.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Wyda, J.C., L.A. Deegan, J.E. Hughes, and M.J. Weaver. 2002. The response of fishes to submerged aquatic vegetation complexity in two ecoregions of the Mid-Atlantic Bight: Buzzards Bay and Chesapeake Bay. Estuaries 25: 86–100.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation 2011

Authors and Affiliations

  • Allison Schein
    • 1
  • Simon C. Courtenay
    • 2
  • Cindy S. Crane
    • 3
  • Kevin L. Teather
    • 1
  • Michael R. van den Heuvel
    • 1
    Email author
  1. 1.Canadian Rivers Institute & Department of BiologyUniversity of Prince Edward IslandCharlottetownCanada
  2. 2.Fisheries and Oceans Canada at the Canadian Rivers Institute, Biology DepartmentUniversity of New BrunswickFrederictonCanada
  3. 3.PEI Department of Environment, Energy & ForestryCharlottetownCanada

Personalised recommendations