Bio-Physical Coupling of Seabirds and Prey with a Dynamic River Plume

Elizabeth M Phillips1, John K Horne1, Jeannette E Zamon2 and Josh Adams3, (1)University of Washington, School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences, Seattle, WA, United States, (2)NOAA Fisheries, Hammond, OR, United States, (3)U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, Santa Cruz, CA, United States
Freshwater plumes and plume density fronts are important regions of bio-physical coupling. On the west coast of North America, discharge from the Columbia River into the northern California Current creates a large, dynamic plume and multiple plume fronts. These nutrient-rich, productive waters fuel primary and secondary production, supporting a wide variety of small pelagic prey fish, large populations of Pacific salmon, seabirds, and marine mammals. To determine the influence of the Columbia River plume on marine predators, we analyzed at-sea seabird counts, in situ environmental data, surface trawl densities of prey fish, and acoustic backscatter measurements collected from research vessels in May and June 2010-2012. Concurrent distribution patterns of satellite-tagged sooty shearwaters (Puffinus griseus) and common murres (Uria aalge) were compared with seabird counts from ship surveys. To evaluate plume use by satellite-tagged birds, daily surface salinity values from SELFE hindcast models were extracted at each tag location. Both seabird species occurred in plume waters disproportionate to the total surveyed area, concentrating in the river plume when river flow and plume volume decreased. Murres were consistently within 20 km of the geographic mean center of the river plume. In contrast, shearwaters consistently occurred ~100 km to the north of the plume center, where high densities of prey fish occur. Although acoustically detected prey also occurred in greater densities within the plume when volume decreased, surface catches of prey in the plume did not vary with changing plume conditions. Geographic indices of colocation (GIC) were low between murres and prey species caught in surface trawls, whereas GICs were >0.5 between shearwaters and prey species including squid (Loligo opalescens), juvenile Chinook salmon (Oncorhynchus tshawytscha), and coho (O. kisutch) salmon. We conclude that the river plume and associated fronts are identifiable, predictable, and persistent physical features that foraging seabirds track to maximize prey encounter rates. Given projected changes in flow regimes related to climate change, our results suggest that seabird use of the river plume may have significant impacts on anadromous salmonid species, which use the plume to migrate to the ocean.