Nutrient linkages between freshwater and marine ecosystems : uptake of salmon-derived nutrients in estuaries




Chow, Jennifer Kristine

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Anadromous Pacific salmon (Oncorhynchus spp.) return annually from marine ecosystems to their natal freshwater habitat to spawn and die. Runs of spawning salmon provide an important source of nutrients and energy to watersheds. However, in coastal systems, substantial amounts of salmon-derived nutrients can be exported back to estuaries. Human land use, including agriculture and urban development, also contribute substantial nutrients to coastal ecosystems, and have the potential to confound results from salmon-derived nutrient studies. This thesis examines the influences of spawning salmon and human land use on stream nutrient and particulate dynamics, including export to estuaries. It also investigates the use of the stable isotope composition (δ13C and δ15N) of estuarine clams, the varnish clam (Nuttalia obscurata: Reeve, 1857) and the manila clam (Tapes philippinarum), and their food sources, as indices of the freshwater export of salmon-derived nutrients to estuaries. Samples were collected from three nearby river-estuary systems along Southeast Vancouver Island, British Columbia. Study systems had either a large number of returning salmon and little human land use (Goldstream), few returning salmon and extensive human land use (Shawnigan), or few returning salmon and little human land use (Holland). In Goldstream River, high abundance of salmon carcasses increased concentrations of total nitrogen and total phosphorus stream water below a barrier to upstream salmon migration. Carcasses also contributed substantial amounts of organic matter to the stream, as indicated by high δ13C and δ15N, and corresponding low C:N ratios in suspended particulate organic matter. My calculations indicate that between 51-77% of the phosphorus transported upstream by migrating salmon, was exported back to the estuary. Human land use also increased downstream nutrient concentrations and raised baseline δ15N in stream ecosystems, which is cause for concern and caution for salmon-derived nutrient studies in land use-affected watersheds, or in the reverse situation, for anthropogenic nutrient studies in watersheds that support runs of anadromous salmon. The high δ15N of anthropogenic nitrogen was not evident in the Shawnigan Estuary. In the Goldstream Estuary salmon-derived nutrients appeared to increase the δ15N of clams, and both the δ13C and δ15N of sedimentary organic matter (SOM), with more enrichment in the high intertidal zone near the river mouth, than in the mid-intertidal zone. The stable isotope composition of clams and SOM was relatively constant across the period of salmon spawning and carcass decay, indicating that they may reflect a legacy salmon-derived nutrient input into estuaries. This study demonstrates that substantial amounts of salmon-derived nutrients are exported back downstream to the Goldstream Estuary where they appear to become integrated into the estuarine food web. Data from a series of estuaries receiving a range of nutrients inputs from salmon is needed to confirm indices of salmon-derived nutrients in estuaries. There is also need for more extensive examination regarding the downstream effects of salmon-derived nutrients in areas such as estuarine productivity, community composition, and positive feedback mechanisms that influence salmon populations. This last area of research is of particular importance considering the high number of salmon stocks at risk in B.C.



ecosystems, salmon spawning