SFEWS: Volume 19, Issue 3
In our September issue new research and commentary provide insights on several topics: how to integrate zooplankton science to inform estuary management; how simulated fishing can avoid missed fish and detect gear bias in the water; why juvenile Chinook Salmon length-at-date criteria don't match genetic run assignments; whether declines in breeding waterfowl population relate to wetland habitat and salinity; and what kinds of food web support can be achieved by use of a managed flow pulse.
Photo: Forster’s Terns at Crown Beach, public domain. Attribution: © Ingrid Taylar, Creative Commons 2.0 Generic license.
Catch as Catch Can
"Catchability" refers to the relationship between catch rate and the true population. Ecological monitoring programs use catch per unit of effort (CPUE) to standardize catch and monitor changes in fish populations; however, CPUE is proportional to the portion of the population that is vulnerable to the type of gear used in sampling, which is not necessarily the entire population. Tobais' simulation combines a module for sampling conditions with a module for individual fish behavior to estimate the proportion of available fish that would escape from the sample. The method is applied to the case study of the well monitored fish species Delta Smelt (Hypomesus transpacificus) in the San Francisco Estuary, where it has been hypothesized that changing water clarity may affect catchability for long-term monitoring studies.
Waterfowl Reproductive Success Depends on High Water, Low Salt
Availability of wetlands with low salinities during the breeding season can influence waterfowl reproductive success and population recruitment. Salinities as low as 2 ppt (3.6 mS/cm) can impair duckling growth and influence behavior, with mortality occurring above 9 ppt (14.8 mS/cm). Schacter et al. used satellite imagery to quantify the amount of available water, and sampled surface water salinity at Grizzly Island, in the brackish Suisun Marsh, at three time-periods during waterfowl breeding (April, May, July) over 4 years (2016–2019). Among their findings was during peak duckling production in May, 81%–95% of available water had salinity above 2 ppt, and 5%–21% was above 9 ppt. Local waterfowl populations would benefit from management practices that provide fresher water during peak duckling production in May and retain more water through July.
Deep Dives Among Waterbird Populations in South SF Bay
In south San Francisco Bay, former salt ponds now managed as wildlife habitat support large populations of breeding waterbirds. In 2006, the South Bay Salt Pond Restoration Project began the process of converting 50% to 90% of these managed pond habitats into tidal marsh. Hartman et al. compared waterbird populations in south San Francisco Bay before (2001) and after (2019) approximately 1,300 ha of managed ponds were breached to tidal action to begin tidal marsh restoration. Study results showed average annual nest abundance declined during 2017–2019 by 53%, 71%, and 36%, for American Avocets, Back-necked Stilts, and Forster’s Terns, respectively. All three species established nesting colonies on newly constructed islands within remaining managed ponds; however, these new colonies did not make up for the steep declines observed at other historical nesting sites. For future wetland restoration, retaining more managed ponds that contain islands suitable for nesting may help to limit further declines in breeding waterbird populations.
Managed Pulse Flows as Food Web Support
While freshwater inflow has been a major focus of resource management in estuaries, including the upper San Francisco Estuary, there is a growing interest in using focused flow actions to maximize benefits for specific regions, habitats, and species. To test this concept, in summer 2016, Frantzich et al. used a managed flow pulse to target an ecologically important region: a freshwater tidal slough called the Cache Slough Complex. Their goal was to improve estuarine habitat by increasing net flows through CSC to enhance downstream transport of lower trophic-level resources, an important driver for fishes such as the endangered Delta Smelt. Simulations using a 3-D hydrodynamic model (UnTRIM) indicated that the managed flow pulse had a large effect on the net flow of water through Yolo Bypass, and between the CSC and further downstream. The managed flow pulse resulted in increased densities of zooplankton (copepods, cladocerans) demonstrating potential advection from upper floodplain channels into the target CSC and Sacramento River regions. Though conducted during a single year, this study may provide an instructive example of how a relatively modest change in net flows can generate measurable changes in ecologically relevant metrics, and how an adaptive management action can help inform resource management.
Length-at-Date Criteria and Genetic Run Assignments
Four distinct runs of Central Valley Chinook Salmon are named after their primary adult return times: fall, late-fall, winter, and spring run. Estimating the run-specific composition of juveniles entering and leaving the Sacramento–San Joaquin Delta is crucial for assessing population status and processes that affect juvenile survival through the Delta. Historically, the run of juvenile Chinook Salmon captured in the field has been determined using a length-at-date criteria (LDC); however, LDC run assignments may be inaccurate if there is high overlap in the run-specific timing and size of juveniles entering and leaving the Delta. In this study, Brandes et al. use genetic run assignments to assess the accuracy of LDC at two trawl locations in the Sacramento River (Delta entry) and at Chipps Island (Delta exit).Across years, there was extensive overlap among the distributions of run-specific fork lengths of genetically identified juveniles, indicating that run compositions based on LDC assignments would tend to underestimate fall-run and especially late-fall-run compositions at both trawl locations, and greatly overestimate spring-run compositions (both locations) and winter-run compositions (Chipps Island). We therefore strongly support ongoing efforts to include tissue sampling and genetic run identification of juvenile Chinook Salmon at key monitoring locations in the Sacramento–San Joaquin River system.
Pelagic fish in the San Francisco Estuary are harder to catch in recent decades. Over the past thirty years, Delta Smelt catch in the Fall Midwater Trawl Survey has declined by 99%, Longfin Smelt catch has declined by over 95%, and even the notoriously hardy Striped Bass have declined by over 75%. To manage the system and reverse these declines, we need a better understanding of the “bottom-up” processes that exert control on these populations—we need to study fish food. In other words, in addition to studying fish directly, we need to increase our understanding of what pelagic fish eat: zooplankton. In this essay, Hartman et al. break down not only what fish eat (zooplankton) and why they are important drivers of species abundance in higher trophic areas of the food web, but also how scientists and natural resources managers can communicate better to understand which zooplankton data can inform and develop management-relevant questions.
Volume 1, Issue 1, 2003
Restoration of tidal wetlands may provide an important tool for improving ecological health and water management for beneficial uses of the San Francisco Estuary (hereafter “Estuary”). Given the large losses of tidal wetlands from San Francisco Bay and the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta in the last 150 years, it seems logical to assume that restoring tidal wetlands will have benefits for a variety of aquatic and terrestrial native species that have declined during the same time period. However, many other changes have also occurred in the Estuary concurrent with the declines of native species. Other factors that might be important in species declines include the effects of construction of upstream dams, large and small water diversions within the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta, agricultural pesticides, trace elements from industrial and agricultural activities, and invasions of alien species. Discussions among researchers, managers, and stakeholders have identified a number of uncertainties regarding the potential benefits of tidal wetland restoration. The articles of the Tidal Wetlands Restoration Series address four major issues of concern. Stated as questions, these are:
1. Will tidal wetland restoration enhance populations of native fishes?
2. Will wetland restoration increase rates of methylation of mercury?
3. Will primary production and other ecological processes in restored tidal wetlands result in net export of organic carbon to adjacent habitats, resulting in enhancement of the food web? Will the carbon produced contribute to the formation of disinfection byproducts when disinfected for use as drinking water?
4. Will restored tidal wetlands provide long-term ecosystem benefits that can be sustained in response to ongoing physical processes, including sedimentation and hydrodynamics?
Reducing the uncertainty surrounding these issues is of critical importance because tidal wetland restoration is assumed to be a critical tool for enhancement of native species and ecosystem processes in the Estuary.
Restoration of tidal wetlands might enhance populations of native fishes in the San Francisco Estuary of California. The purpose of this paper is to: (1) review the currently available information regarding the importance of tidal wetlands to native fishes in the San Francisco Estuary, (2) construct conceptual models on the basis of available information, (3) identify key areas of scientific uncertainty, and (4) identify methods to improve conceptual models and reduce uncertainty. There are few quantitative data to suggest that restoration of tidal wetlands will substantially increase populations of native fishes. On a qualitative basis, there is some support for the idea that tidal wetland restoration will increase populations of some native fishes; however, the species deriving the most benefit from restoration might not be of great management concern at present. Invasion of the San Francisco Estuary by alien plants and animals appears to be a major factor in obscuring the expected link between tidal wetlands and native fishes. Large-scale adaptive management experiments (>100 hectares) appear to be the best available option for determining whether tidal wetlands will provide significant benefit to native fishes. Even if these experiments are unsuccessful at increasing native fish populations, the restored wetlands should benefit native birds, plants, and other organisms.
Restoration of tidal wetlands in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta) is an important component of the Ecosystem Restoration Program of the CALFED Bay-Delta Program (CALFED). CALFED is a collaborative effort among state and federal agencies to restore the ecological health and improve water management of the Delta and San Francisco Bay (Bay). Tidal wetland restoration is intended to provide valuable habitat for organisms and to improve ecosystem productivity through export of various forms of organic carbon, including both algae and plant detritus. However, the Delta also provides all or part of the drinking water for over 22 million Californians. In this context, increasing sources of organic carbon may be a problem because of the potential increase in the production of trihalomethanes and other disinfection by-products created during the process of water disinfection. This paper reviews the existing information about the roles of organic carbon in ecosystem function and drinking water quality in the Bay-Delta system, evaluates the potential for interaction, and considers major uncertainties and potential actions to reduce uncertainty. In the last 10 years, substantial progress has been made on the role of various forms of organic carbon in both ecosystem function and drinking water quality; however, interactions between the two have not been directly addressed. Several ongoing studies are beginning to address these interactions, and the results from these studies should reduce uncertainty and provide focus for further research.
Present concentrations of mercury in large portions of San Francisco Bay (Bay), the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (Delta), and the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers are high enough to warrant concern for the health of humans and wildlife. Large scale tidal wetland restoration is currently under consideration as a means of increasing populations of fish species of concern. Tidal wetland restoration activities may lead to increased concentrations of mercury in the estuarine food web and exacerbate the existing mercury problem. This paper evaluates our present ability to predict the local and regional effects of restoration actions on mercury accumulation in aquatic food webs. A sport fish consumption advisory is in place for the Bay, and an advisory is under consideration for the Delta and lower Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers. Mercury concentrations in eggs of several water bird species from the Bay have exceeded the lowest observed effect level. A variety of mercury sources, largely related to historic mercury and gold mining, is present in the watershed and has created a spatially heterogeneous distribution of mercury in the Bay-Delta Estuary. Mercury exists in the environment in a variety of forms and has a complex biogeochemical cycle. The most hazardous form, methylmercury, is produced at a relatively high rate in wetlands and newly flooded aquatic habitats. It is likely that distinct spatial variation on multiple spatial scales exists in net methylmercury production in Bay-Delta tidal wetlands, including variation within each tidal wetland, among tidal wetlands in the same region, and among tidal wetlands in different regions. Understanding this spatial variation and its underlying causes will allow environmental managers to minimize the negative effects of mercury bioaccumulation as a result of restoration activities. Actions needed to reduce the uncertainty associated with this issue include a long term, multifaceted research effort, long term monitoring on local and regional scales, and careful evaluation of individual restoration projects with regard to potential increase of food web mercury.
We assess whether or not restored marshes in the San Francisco Estuary are expected to be sustainable in light of future landscape scale geomorphic processes given typical restored marsh conditions. Our assessment is based on a review of the literature, appraisal of monitoring data for restored marshes, and application of vertical accretion modeling of organic and inorganic sedimentation. Vertical accretion modeling suggests that salt marshes in San Pablo Bay will be sustainable for moderate relative sea level rise (3 to 5 mm yr-1) and average sediment supply (c. 100 mg L-1). Accelerated relative sea level rise (above 6 mm yr-1) and/or reduced sediment supply (50 mg L-1) will cause lowering of the marsh surface relative to the tide range and may cause shifts from high to low marsh vegetation by the year 2100. Widespread conversion of marsh to mudflat-"ecological drowning"-is not expected within this time frame. Marshes restored at lower elevations necessary to aid the natural development of channel systems (c. 0.5 m below mean higher high water) are predicted to accrete to high marsh elevations by the year 2100 for moderate relative sea level rise and sediment supply conditions. Existing rates of sediment accretion in restored fresh water tidal marshes of the Delta of greater than 9 mm yr-1 and slightly lower drowning elevations suggest that these marshes will be resilient against relatively high rates of sea level rise. Because of higher rates of organic production, fresh water marshes are expected to be less sensitive to reduced sediment availability than salt marshes. The ultimate long-term threat to the sustainability of tidal marshes is the interruption of coastal rollover-the process by which landward marsh expansion in response to sea level rise compensates for shoreline erosion. Bay front development now prevents most landward marsh expansion, while shoreline erosion is expected to accelerate as sea level rises.
The four topical articles of the Tidal Wetlands Restoration Series summarized and synthesized much of what is known about tidal wetlands and tidal wetland restoration in the San Francisco Estuary (hereafter “Estuary”). Despite a substantial amount of available information, major uncertainties remain. A major uncertainty with regard to fishes is the net benefit of restored tidal wetlands relative to other habitats for native fishes in different regions of the Estuary given the presence of numerous invasive alien species. With regard to organic carbon, a major uncertainty is the net benefit of land use change given uncertainty about the quantity and quality of different forms of organic carbon resulting from different land uses. A major challenge is determining the flux of organic carbon from open systems like tidal wetlands. Converting present land uses to tidal wetlands will almost certainly result in increased methylation of mercury at the local scale with associated accumulation of mercury within local food webs. However, it is unclear if such local accumulation is of concern for fish, wildlife or humans at the local scale or if cumulative effects at the regional scale will emerge. Based on available information it is expected that restored tidal wetlands will remain stable once constructed; however, there is uncertainty associated with the available data regarding the balance of sediment accretion, sea-level rise, and sediment erosion. There is also uncertainty regarding the cumulative effect of many tidal restoration projects on sediment supply. The conclusions of the articles highlight the need to adopt a regional and multidisciplinary approach to tidal wetland restoration in the Estuary. The Science Program of the CALFED effort provides an appropriate venue for addressing these issues.