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Climate mediates hypoxic stress on fish diversity and nursery function at the land-sea interface

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Abstract

Coastal ecosystems provide numerous important ecological services, including maintenance of biodiversity and nursery grounds for many fish species of ecological and economic importance. However, human population growth has led to increased pollution, ocean warming, hypoxia, and habitat alteration that threaten ecosystem services. In this study, we used long-term datasets of fish abundance, water quality, and climatic factors to assess the threat of hypoxia and the regulating effects of climate on fish diversity and nursery conditions in Elkhorn Slough, a highly eutrophic estuary in central California (United States), which also serves as a biodiversity hot spot and critical nursery grounds for offshore fisheries in a broader region. We found that hypoxic conditions had strong negative effects on extent of suitable fish habitat, fish species richness, and abundance of the two most common flatfish species, English sole (Parophrys vetulus) and speckled sanddab (Citharichthys stigmaeus). The estuary serves as an important nursery ground for English sole, making this species vulnerable to anthropogenic threats. We determined that estuarine hypoxia was associated with significant declines in English sole nursery habitat, with cascading effects on recruitment to the offshore adult population and fishery, indicating that human land use activities can indirectly affect offshore fisheries. Estuarine hypoxic conditions varied spatially and temporally and were alleviated by strengthening of El Niño conditions through indirect pathways, a consistent result in most estuaries across the northeast Pacific. These results demonstrate that changes to coastal land use and climate can fundamentally alter the diversity and functioning of coastal nurseries and their adjacent ocean ecosystems.

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Hughes, B. B., Levey, M. D., Fountain, M. C., Carlisle, A. B., Chavez, F. P., & Gleason, M. G. (2015). Climate mediates hypoxic stress on fish diversity and nursery function at the land-sea interface. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 112(26), 8025–8030. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1505815112

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