Subtroprical wetland fish assemblages and changing salinity regimes: Implications for everglades restoration
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AbstractDuring the 1960s, water management practices resulted in the conversion of the wetlands that fringe northeastern Florida Bay (USA) from freshwater/oligohaline herbaceous marshes to dwarf red mangrove forests. Coincident with this conversion were several ecological changes to Florida Bay’s fauna, including reductions in the abundances of top trophic-level consumers: piscivorous fishes, alligators, crocodiles, and wading birds. Because these taxa rely on a common forage base of small demersal fishes, food stress has been implicated as playing a role in their respective declines. In the present study, we monitored the demersal fishes seasonally at six sites over an 8-year time period. During monitoring, extremely high rainfall conditions occurred over a 3.5-year period leading to salinity regimes that can be viewed as “windows” to the area’s natural past and future restored states. In this paper, we: (1) examine the changes in fish communities over the 8-year study period and relate them to measured changes in salinity; (2) make comparisons among marine, brackish and freshwater demersal fish communities in terms of species composition, density, and biomass; and (3) discuss several implications of our findings in light of the intended and unintended water management changes that are planned or underway as part of Everglades restoration. Results suggest the reduction in freshwater flow to Florida Bay over the last several decades has reduced demersal fish populations, and thus prey availability for apex consumers in the coastal wetlands compared to the pre-drainage inferred standard. Furthermore, greater discharge of freshwater toward Florida Bay may result in the re-establishment of pre-1960s fauna, including a more robust demersal-fish community that should prompt increases in populations of several important predatory species.