Although numerous studies have attempted to place species of interest within the context of food webs, such efforts have generally occurred at small scales or disregard potentially important spatial heterogeneity. If food web approaches are to be employed to manage species, studies are needed that evaluate the multiple habitats and associated webs of interactions in which these species participate. Here, we quantify the food webs that sustain rearing salmon and steelhead within a floodplain landscape of the Methow River, Washington, USA, a location where restoration has been proposed to restore side channels in an attempt to recover anadromous fishes. We combined year-long measures of production, food demand, and diet composition for the fish assemblage with estimates of invertebrate prey productivity to quantify food webs within the main channel and five different, intact, side channels; ranging from channels that remained connected to the main channel at low flow to those reduced to floodplain ponds. Although we found that habitats within the floodplain had similar invertebrate prey production, these habitats hosted different local food webs. In the main channel, 95% of total prey consumption flowed to fishes that are not the target of proposed restoration. These fishes consumed 64% and 47% of the prey resources that were found to be important to fueling chinook and steelhead production in the main channel, respectively. Conversely, in side channels, a greater proportion of prey was consumed by anadromous salmonids. As a result, carrying capacity estimates based on food were 251% higher, on average, for anadromous salmonids in side channels than the main channel. However, salmon and steelhead production was generally well below estimated capacity in both the main and side channels, suggesting these habitats are under-seeded with respect to food, and that much larger populations could be supported. Overall, this study demonstrates that floodplain heterogeneity is associated with the occurrence of a mosaic of food webs, all of which were utilized by anadromous salmonids, and all of which may be important to their recovery and persistence. In the long term, these and other fishes would likely benefit from restoring the processes that maintain floodplain complexity.
Additional publication details
The floodplain food web mosaic: a study of its importance to salmon and steelhead with implications for their recovery