Research Publications: UM-SG-RS-2003-03


The pattern and influence of low dissolved oxygen in the Patuxent River, a seasonally hypoxic estuary.




Breitburg, DL; Adamack, A; Rose, KA; Kolesar, SE; Decker, MB; Purcell, JE; Keister, JE; Cowan, JH


26 ( 2 ) : 280 - 297




Increased nutrient loadings have resulted in low dissolved oxygen (DO) concentrations in bottom waters of the Patuxent River, a tributary of Chesapeake Bay. We synthesize existing and newly collected data to examine spatial and temporal variation in bottom DO, the prevalence of hypoxia-induced mortality of fishes, the tolerance of Patuxent River biota to low DO, and the influence of bottom DO on the vertical distributions and spatial overlap of larval fish and fish eggs with their gelatinous predators and zooplankton prey. We use this information, as well as output from watershed-quality and water-quality models, to configure a spatially-explicit individual-based model to predict how changing land use within the Patuxent watershed may affect survival of early life stages of summer breeding fishes through its effect on DO. Bottom waters in much of the mesohaline Patuxent River are below 50% DO saturation during summer. The system is characterized by high spatial and temporal variation in DO concentrations, and the current severity and extent of hypoxia are sufficient to alter distributions of organisms and trophic interactions in the river. Gelatinous zooplankton are among the most tolerant species of hypoxia, while several of the ecologically and economically important finfish are among the most sensitive. This variation in DO tolerances may make the Patuxent River, and similar estuaries, particularly susceptible to hypoxia-induced alterations in food web dynamics. Model simulations consistently predict high mortality of planktonic bay anchovy eggs (Anchoa mitchilli) under current DO, and increasing survival of fish eggs with increasing DO. Changes in land use that reduce nutrient loadings may either increase or decrease predation mortality of larval fish depending on the baseline DO conditions at any point in space and time. A precautionary approach towards fisheries and ecosystem management would recommend reducing nutrients to levels at which low oxygen effects on estuarine habitat are reduced and, where possible, eliminated.

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