Reduced Salinity Improves Marine Food Availability With Positive Feedbacks on pH in a Tidally-Dominated Estuary

Alexander T Lowe1, Emily A Roberts1 and Aaron Winson Elias Galloway2, (1)University of Washington, Biology, Seattle, WA, United States, (2)University of Oregon, Oregon Institute of Marine Biology, Charleston, OR, United States
Coastal regions around the world are changing rapidly, generating many physiological stressors for marine organisms. Food availability, a major factor determining physiological condition of marine organisms, in these systems reflects the influence of biological and environmental factors, and will likely respond dramatically to long-term changes. Using observations of phytoplankton, detritus, and their corresponding fatty acids and stable isotopes of carbon, nitrogen and sulfur, we identified environmental drivers of pelagic food availability and quality along a salinity gradient in a large tidally influenced estuary (San Juan Archipelago, Salish Sea, USA). Variation in chlorophyll a (Chl a), biomarkers and environmental conditions exhibited a similar range at both tidal and seasonal scales, highlighting a tide-related mechanism controlling productivity that is important to consider for long-term monitoring. Multiple parameters of food availability were inversely and non-linearly correlated to salinity, such that availability of high-quality (based on abundance, essential fatty acid concentration and C:N) seston increased below a salinity threshold of ~30. The increased marine productivity was associated with increased pH and dissolved oxygen (DO) at lower salinity. Based on this observation we predicted that a decrease of salinity to below the threshold would result in higher Chl a, temperature, DO and pH across a range of temporal and spatial scales, and tested the prediction with a meta-analysis of available data. At all scales, these variables showed significant and consistent increases related to the salinity threshold. This finding provides important context to the increased frequency of below-threshold salinity over the last 71 years in this region, suggesting greater food availability with positive feedbacks on DO and pH. Together, these findings indicate that many of the environmental factors predicted to increase physiological stress to benthic suspension feeders (e.g. decreased salinity) may simultaneously and paradoxically improve conditions for benthic organisms.