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The use of otolith strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) to identify nursery habitat for a threatened estuarine fish


Nursery habitats are larval or juvenile habitats that disproportionately contribute individuals to adult populations of a species. Identifying and protecting such habitats is important to species conservation, yet evaluating the relative contributions of different larval habitats to adult fish populations has proven difficult at best. Otolith geochemistry is one available tool for reconstructing previous habitat use of adult fishes during the early life history, thus facilitating the identification of nursery habitats. In this study, we compared traditional catch surveys of larval-stage longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys) occurring in habitats of different salinities to corresponding larval-stage salinity distributions of sub-adult/adult longfin smelt estimated using otolith geochemical techniques. This allowed us to evaluate the relative contribution of larvae from waters of various salinities to sub-adult/adult populations of longfin smelt. We used laser ablation MC-ICP-MS on otoliths and an empirically-derived relationship between strontium isotope ratios (87Sr/86Sr) of waters across the estuarine salinity gradient to reconstruct the larval salinity history of longfin smelt. Salinity values from the larval region of sub-adult/adult otoliths (corresponding to standard lengths of ca.10-mm) were compared to corresponding catch distribution of larval longfin smelt (≤ 10-mm) from 4 year-classes (1999, 2000, 2003 and 2006) in the San Francisco Estuary spanning a period when the population underwent a dramatic decline. Though the catch distribution of larval-stage longfin smelt was centered around 4-ppt and did not vary significantly among years, salinity distributions of sub-adult/adult were lower and narrower (ca. 2-ppt), suggesting that low-salinity habitats disproportionally contributed more recruits relative to both freshwater and brackish water habitats and, therefore, may function as important nursery areas. Furthermore, the relative importance of the low salinity zone (ca. 2-ppt) to successful recruitment appeared greatest in years following the longfin smelt population decline. Our results indicate that otolith strontium isotopes (87Sr/86Sr) are a powerful tool for identifying nursery habitats for estuarine fishes.

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