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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Forage Fish Larvae Distribution and Habitat Use During Contrasting Years of Low and High Freshwater Flow in the San Francisco Estuary


Recruitment of estuarine organisms can vary dramatically from year to year with abiotic and biotic conditions. The San Francisco Estuary (California, USA) supports a dynamic ecosystem that receives freshwater flow from numerous tributaries that drain one of the largest watersheds in western North America. In this study, we examined distribution and habitat use of two forage fish larvae of management interest, Longfin Smelt Spirinchus thaleichthys and Pacific Herring Clupea pallasii, during a low-flow and a high-flow year to better understand how their rearing locations (region and habitat) may affect their annual recruitment variability. During the low-flow year, larval and post-larval Longfin Smelt were distributed landward, where suitable salinity overlapped with spawning habitats. During the high-flow year, larval Longfin Smelt were distributed seaward, with many collected in smaller tributaries and shallow habitats of San Francisco Bay. Local spawning and advection from seaward habitats were speculated to be the primary mechanisms that underlie larval Longfin Smelt distribution during the high-flow year. Larval Pacific Herring were more abundant seaward in both years, but a modest number of larvae were also found landward during the low-flow year. Larval Pacific Herring abundance was lower overall in the high-flow year, suggesting advection out of the area or poor recruitment. Future monitoring and conservation efforts for Longfin Smelt and Pacific Herring should recognize that potential mechanisms underlying their recruitment can vary broadly across the San Francisco Estuary in any given year, which suggests that monitoring and research of these two species expand accordingly with hydrologic conditions that are likely to affect their spawning and larval rearing distributions.

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