Nearshore Communities and Shoreline Development


Shallow water as a refuge habitat for fish and crustaceans in non-vegetated estuaries: an example from Chesapeake Bay

Marine Ecology Progress Series
Volume 99, Pages 55 - 68, 1992

Gregory Ruiz, Anson Hines, Martin H. Posey

1 Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, PO Box 28, Edgewater, MD 21037, USA

2 Department of Biological Sciences, University of North Carolina at Wilmington, Wilmington, North Carolina 28403, USA

Abundances and size-frequency distributions of common epibenthic fish and crustaceans were compared among 3 depth zones (1-35, 35-70, 71-95 cm) of the Rhode River, a subestuary of Chesapeake Bay, USA. In the absence of submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), inter- and intraspecific size segregation occurred by depth from May to October, 1989-1992. Small species (Palaemonetes pugio, Crangon septemspinosa, Fundulus heteroclitus, F. majalis, Rhithropanopeus harrisii, Apeltes quadracus, Gobiosoma bosci) were the most abundant at water depths <70 cm. Furthermore, the proportion of small individuals decreased significantly with depth for 7 of 8 species, with C. septemspinosa being the exception, exhibiting no size change with increasing depth. These distributional patterns were related to depth-dependent predation risk. Large species (Callinectes sapidus, Leiostomus xanthurus, and Micropogonias undulates), known predators of some of the small species, were often most abundant in deep water (>70 cm). In field experiments, mortality of tethered P. pugio (30 to 35 mm), small F. heteroclitus (40 to 50 mm), and small C. sapidus (30 - 70 mm) increased significantly with depth. We hypothesize that predation risk was size-dependent, creating the observed intra- and and interspecific size differences among the depth zones. For C. septemspinosa, burial may modify this size-dependency and create the unusual absence of intraspecific size increase with depth. Historically, P. pugio and Fundulus spp. (and other small species) were not restricted to shallow (<70 cm) waters and were abundant in deepr SAV beds, which provided a structural refuge from predators. Since the recent demise of SAV in Chesapeake Bay, our results indicate many small species have shifted their distributions and now utilize primarily shallow water as an alternate refuge habitat.