Bottom-Up Processes and Consumer Effects in Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron
Nutrients are essential to support fish production in aquatic systems but are detrimental in excess. To that end, the relationship between nutrient loading and fish biomass is hypothesized to be unimodal. In the mid-20th century, numerous aquatic systems in North America and Europe were receiving excessive nutrients and were considered heavily degraded as a result. Since then, nutrient abatement programs have resulted in increased fish biomass in many systems throughout the two continents. However, few systems have complete records of fish biomass and nutrient loading to offer support for both sides of the unimodal fishery production curve. In Saginaw Bay, Lake Huron, total phosphorus estimates are available back to when nutrient abatement programs were first implemented in the system in the 1970s. In addition, a long-term fall bottom trawling dataset from an annual monitoring survey conducted by the Michigan Department of Natural Resources has indexed fish biomass and composition since 1970. In Chapter 2, we utilize these datasets to analyze trends in system-wide fish biomass as well as fish community trends since 1970 in response to continued nutrient abatement. We found increasing fish biomass from 1970 until the early 2000s concurrent with total phosphorus declines. However, more recently, we documented declines in system-wide fish biomass with reduced nutrient loads. We found planktivorous and benthivorous fish species displayed similar initial increases in biomass followed by more recent declines in biomass. However, we determined current total phosphorus loading was still sufficient to support piscivore biomass near peak levels.
While nutrients in Saginaw Bay are lower than at times in the past, the system is still highly productive. One consequence of productive systems is increased susceptibility to hypoxia, or low dissolved oxygen that can result from organic matter decomposition. Past studies have documented hypoxic conditions in Saginaw Bay in the summer and over-winter period. However, past studies have been limited in scale and have not estimated the extent or duration of hypoxia throughout the Saginaw Bay system. With climate change expected to increase the occurrence of hypoxia throughout the Laurentian Great Lakes, knowledge of dissolved oxygen dynamics in the system is becoming progressively more important. In Chapter 3, we used an array of high frequency data loggers deployed throughout inner Saginaw Bay over two summer and over-winter periods to document dissolved oxygen conditions. We also analyzed a time series dataset of bottom oxygen and environmental parameter measurements to determine the conditions that contribute to low dissolved oxygen in the bay. Further, through stable isotope analysis we investigated whether hypoxic conditions had an effect on the carbon and nitrogen (δ13C and δ15N) isotopic signatures of chironomid larvae, an important basal prey item in Saginaw Bay. We found instances of seasonal hypolimnetic hypoxia in the summers of 2021 and 2022 but normoxic conditions throughout the over-winter periods following each summer. We also determined bottom water and wind speed to be the most reliable predictors of low dissolved oxygen since 2011, indicating the temporary stratification that can occur during warm, calm summer periods likely precedes the development of hypoxic conditions in Saginaw Bay. Chironomid δ13C and δ15N values were highly variable, but some individuals displayed very low values, indicative of hypoxia exposure.
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