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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Phytoplankton fuels Delta food web

  • Author(s): Jassby, Alan D.
  • Cloern, James E.
  • Müller-Solger, Anke B.
  • et al.

Populations of certain fishes and invertebrates in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta have declined in abundance in recent decades and there is evidence that food supply is partly responsible. While many sources of organic matter in the Delta could be supporting fish populations indirectly through the food web (including aquatic vegetation and decaying organic matter from agricultural drainage), a careful accounting shows that phytoplankton is the dominant food source. Phytoplankton, communities of microscopic free-floating algae, are the most important food source on a Delta-wide scale when both food quantity and quality are taken into account. These microscopic algae have declined since the late 1960s. Fertilizer and pesticide runoff do not appear to be playing a direct role in long-term phytoplankton changes; rather, species invasions, increasing water transparency and fluctuations in water transport are responsible. Although the potential toxicity of herbicides and pesticides to plankton in the Delta is well documented, the ecological significance remains speculative. Nutrient inputs from agricultural runoff at current levels, in combination with increasing transparency, could result in harmful algal blooms.

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