Bivalve effects on the food web supporting delta smelt - A long-term study of bivalve recruitment, biomass, and grazing rate patterns with varying freshwater outflow

Open-File Report 2016-1005
Prepared in cooperation with California Department of Water Resources
By: , and 


Executive Summary

Phytoplankton is an important and limiting food source in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta (the Delta) and San Francisco Bay; the decline of phytoplankton biomass is one possible factor in the pelagic organism decline and specifically in the decline of the protected delta smelt. The bivalves Corbicula fluminea andPotamocorbula amurensis have been shown to control phytoplankton biomass in several locations throughout the system, and their distribution and population dynamics are therefore of great interest. We were able to describe the distribution and dynamics of bivalve biomass through use of samples collected by the California Department of Water Resources (DWR) as part of a monitoring program from 1977 to 2013. As one element of DWR’s and the Bureau of Reclamation’s Environmental Monitoring Program (EMP), the DWR benthic monitoring program examines the impact of water project operations on the estuary as prescribed by a series of Water Rights Decisions mandated by the State Water Resources Control Board (SWRCB). The availability of multidecade samples allowed us to examine long-term trends in biomass, recruitment, and size of bivalves at the 15 stations sampled. 

Biomass and grazing rate had the same basic trends, and the conclusions that we apply to biomass can be applied to grazing rate data. During winter of most years, Potamocorbula biomass was low at all locations and was near zero in the shallow San Pablo Bay station. The Potamocorbula biomass at shallow stations consistently peaked during summer and fall, but there was no consistent peak season in the deep stations. Corbicula had a much less consistent seasonal biomass pattern than Potamocorbula. However, some interannual patterns were consistent between stations. Corbicula biomass at three stations declined after 2003 (C9, D16, and D28). The Franks Tract (D19) Corbicula biomass had a baseline shift up (that is, all values were > 0) in 1985 until DWR ceased sampling at the station in 1995. Two other stations showed a similar increase in baseline but at different times; D24 shifted up after 2007 and D11 shifted up in 1991. 

Potamocorbula recruitment (any bivalve ≤ 2.5 millimeters [mm] in length) occurred anytime between spring and fall, with bivalves at the most downstream stations in San Pablo Bay recruiting in spring and animals at the most upstream stations recruiting in fall. The bivalves at the stations between these endpoints recruited in (1) spring or (2) summer and fall (Carquinez Strait), or in some combination of two of those three seasons in Grizzly Bay. The few locations where Potamocorbula and Corbicula overlapped showed recruitment abundance opposing each other, with Potamocorbula recruits peaking during the more saline time of year and Corbicula recruits peaking during periods of lower salinities. Corbicula recruits were present throughout most of the year with some peaks in abundance, but the patterns were not seasonally consistent at any station. 

Mean size peaked in both bivalves in late summer and early fall and never got above a certain size; maximum size depended on location. The mean size of both bivalves has decreased over the years, with the size distributions throughout the Delta now skewed toward smaller, younger Corbicula (< 10 mm). The mean size of Potamocorbula has also become skewed toward the small, younger bivalves, with sizes in the range of 28 mm. The mean size ofPotamocorbula increased from spring to fall and decreased in winter. A similar generalization is not possible with Corbicula because seasonal patterns in size varied depending on station location. Station D24 on the Sacramento River was the only location with an increase in Corbicula mean size over the sampling period. 

The largest mean sized Potamocorbula were seen in the channel areas, where sizes of 15 mm were common at stations D41C, 8.1, and D6; sizes in excess of 15 mm were observed at all three D4 stations during the mid 1990s. The mean size of Potamocorbula in the shoals was ≈57 mm in most years in Grizzly Bay (D7) and San Pablo Bay (D41A), with an increase to > 10 mm at D7 in the wet years. 

The largest mean sized Corbicula were in the southern Delta (C9 ≈25 mm during 199697 and 20122013), and the smallest average sizes were in the San Joaquin River (P8 and D16). Corbicula at the upstream Sacramento River station (D24) and in the southern Delta (C9) showed similar interannual patterns in average size although the animals at C9 were consistently larger than those at D24 were. Corbicula in Franks Tract (D19) and the Old River (D28A) south of Franks Tract were also similar in size and in interannual patterns. 

At the few stations where Potamocorbula and Corbicula co-occur, it appears that they did not hinder each other’s growth. Both bivalves had large animals at D4, where Corbicula size increased coincident with the presence of Potamocorbula in 1987. Corbicula were observed in wet years prior to Potamocorbula’sinvasion at D7 (Grizzly Bay) and were capable of growing to significant size in wet years (> 20 mm in 1986). 

Suggested Citation

Crauder, J.S., Thompson, J.K., Parchaso, F., Anduaga, R.I., Pearson, S.A., Gehrts, K., Fuller, H., and Wells, E., 2016, Bivalve effects on the food web supporting delta smelt—A long-term study of bivalve recruitment, biomass, and grazing rate patterns with varying freshwater outflow: U.S. Geological Survey Open-File Report 2016–1005, 216 p.,

ISSN: 2331-1258 (online)

Study Area

Table of Contents

  • Executive Summary
  • Introduction
  • Methods
  • Results
  • Selected References
  • Appendixes
Publication type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Title Bivalve effects on the food web supporting delta smelt - A long-term study of bivalve recruitment, biomass, and grazing rate patterns with varying freshwater outflow
Series title Open-File Report
Series number 2016-1005
DOI 10.3133/ofr20161005
Year Published 2016
Language English
Publisher U.S. Geological Survey
Publisher location Reston, VA
Contributing office(s) National Research Program - Western Branch, San Francisco Bay-Delta
Description xi, 216 p.
Country United States
State California
Other Geospatial San Francisco Bay, Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta
Online Only (Y/N) Y
Additional Online Files (Y/N) N
Google Analytic Metrics Metrics page
Additional publication details