Season- and depth-dependent variability of a demersal fish assemblage in a large fjord estuary (Puget Sound, Washington)


Reum, Jonathan C. P., and Timothy E. Essington
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Fjord estuaries are common along the northeast Pacific coastline, but little information is available on fish assemblage structure and its spatiotemporal variability. Here, we examined changes in diversity metrics, species biomasses, and biomass spectra (the distribution of biomass across body size classes) over three seasons (fall, winter, summer) and at multiple depths (20 to 160 m) in Puget Sound, Washington, a deep and highly urbanized fjord estuary on the U.S. west coast. Our results indicate that this fish assemblage is dominated by cartilaginous species (spotted ratfish [Hydrolagus colliei] and spiny dogfish [Squalus acanthias]) and therefore differs fundamentally from fish assemblages found in shallower estuaries in the northeast Pacific. Diversity was greatest in shallow waters (<40 m), where the assemblage was composed primarily of flatfishes and sculpins, and lowest in deep waters (>80 m) that are more common in Puget Sound and that are dominated by spotted ratfish and seasonally (fall and summer) by spiny dogfish. Strong depth-dependent variation in the demersal fish assemblage may be a general feature of deep fjord estuaries and indicates pronounced spatial variability in the food web. Future comparisons with less impacted fjords may offer insight into whether cartilaginous species naturally dominate these systems or only do so under conditions related to human-caused ecosystem degradation. Information on species distributions is critical for marine spatial planning and for modeling energy flows in coastal food webs. The data presented here will aid these endeavors and highlight areas for future research in this important yet understudied system.