Send to

Choose Destination
Ecology. 2011 Feb;92(2):373-85.

Marine-derived nutrients, bioturbation, and ecosystem metabolism: reconsidering the role of salmon in streams.

Author information

School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington 98195, USA.


In coastal areas of the North Pacific Ocean, annual returns of spawning salmon provide a substantial influx of nutrients and organic matter to streams and are generally believed to enhance the productivity of recipient ecosystems. Loss of this subsidy from areas with diminished salmon runs has been hypothesized to limit ecosystem productivity in juvenile salmon rearing habitats (lakes and streams), thereby reinforcing population declines. Using five to seven years of data from an Alaskan stream supporting moderate salmon densities, we show that salmon predictably increased stream water nutrient concentrations, which were on average 190% (nitrogen) and 390% (phosphorus) pre-salmon values, and that primary producers incorporated some of these nutrients into tissues. However, benthic algal biomass declined by an order of magnitude despite increased nutrients. We also measured changes in stream ecosystem metabolic properties, including gross primary productivity (GPP) and ecosystem respiration (ER), from three salmon streams by analyzing diel measurements of oxygen concentrations and stable isotopic ratios (delta O-O2) within a Bayesian statistical model of oxygen dynamics. Our results do not support a shift toward higher primary productivity with the return of salmon, as is expected from a nutrient fertilization mechanism. Rather, net ecosystem metabolism switched from approximately net autotrophic (GPP > or = ER) to a strongly net heterotrophic state (GPP << ER) in response to bioturbation of benthic habitats by salmon. Following the seasonal arrival of salmon, GPP declined to <12% of pre-salmon rates, while ER increased by over threefold. Metabolism by live salmon could not account for the observed increase in ER early in the salmon run, suggesting salmon nutrients and disturbance enhanced in situ heterotrophic respiration. Salmon also changed the physical properties of the stream, increasing air-water gas exchange by nearly 10-fold during peak spawning. We suggest that management efforts to restore salmon ecosystems should consider effects on ecosystem metabolic properties and how salmon disturbance affects the incorporation of marine-derived nutrients into food webs.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

Supplemental Content

Loading ...
Support Center