Isohaline position as a habitat indicator for estuarine populations

Ecological Applications
By: , and 



Populations of native and introduced aquatic organisms in the San  Francisco Bay/Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary ("Bay/Delta") have undergone significant declines over the past two decades. Decreased river inflow due to drought and increased freshwater diversion have contributed to the decline of at least some populations. Effective management of the estuary's biological resources requires a sensitive indicator of the response to freshwater inflow that has ecological significance, can be measured accurately and easily, and could be used as a "policy" variable to set standards for managing freshwater inflow. Positioning of the 2% (grams of salt per kilogram of seawater) bottom salinity value along the axis of the estuary was examined for this purpose.

The 2% bottom salinity position (denoted by X2) has simple and significant statistical relationships with annual measures of many estuarine resources, including the supply of phytoplankton and phytoplankton-derived detritus from local production and river loading; benthic macroinvertebrates (molluscs); mysids and shrimp; larval fish survival; and the abundance of planktivorous, piscivorous, and bottom-foraging fish. The actual mechanisms are understood for only a few of these populations.

X2 also satisfies other recognized requirements for a habitat indicator and probably can be measured with greater accuracy and precision than alternative habitat indicators such as net freshwater inflow into the estuary. The 2% value may not have special ecological significance for other estuaries (in the Bay/Delta, it marks the locations of an estuarine turbidity maximum and peaks in the abundance of several estuarine organisms), but the concept of using near-bottom isohaline position as a habitat indicator should be widely applicable.
Although X2 is a sensitive index of the estuarine community's response to net freshwater inflow, other hydraulic features of the estuary also determine population abundances and resource levels. In particular, diversion of water for export from or consumption within the estuary can have a direct effect on population abundance independent of its effect on X2. The need to consider diversion, in addition to X2, for managing certain estuarine resources is illustrated using striped bass survival as an example.

The striped bass survival data were also used to illustrate a related important point: incorporating additional explanatory variables may decrease the prediction error for a population or process, but it can increase the uncertainty in parameter estimates and management strategies based on these estimates. Even in cases where the uncertainty is currently too large to guide management decisions, an uncertainty analysis can identify the most practical direction for future data acquisition.

Study Area

Publication type Article
Publication Subtype Journal Article
Title Isohaline position as a habitat indicator for estuarine populations
Series title Ecological Applications
DOI 10.2307/1942069
Volume 5
Issue 1
Year Published 1995
Language English
Publisher Ecological Society of America
Publisher location Washington, D.C.
Contributing office(s) California Water Science Center
Description 18 p.
First page 272
Last page 289
Country United States
State California
County San Francisco
City Sacramento; San Francisco; San Jose
Other Geospatial San Francisco Bay and Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta Estuary
Online Only (Y/N) N
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
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