Diel migration patterns of fishes in nearshore (15–80 m depth) and offshore (>80 m) waters of Lake Superior were examined to assess the potential for diel migration to link benthic and pelagic, and nearshore and offshore habitats. In our companion article, we described three types of diel migration: diel vertical migration (DVM), diel bank migration (DBM), and no diel migration. DVM was expressed by fishes migrating from benthopelagic to pelagic positions and DBM was expressed by fishes migrating horizontally from deep to shallow waters at night. Fishes not exhibiting diel migration typically showed increased activity by moving from benthic to benthopelagic positions within demersal habitat. The distribution and biomass of fishes in Lake Superior was characterized by examining 704 bottom trawl samples collected between 2001 and 2008 from four depth zones: ≤40, 41–80, 81–160, and >160 m. Diel migration behaviors of fishes described in our companion article were applied to estimates of areal biomass (kg ha−1) for each species by depth zone. The relative strength of diel migrations were assessed by applying lake area to areal biomass estimates for each species by depth zone to yield estimates of lake-wide biomass (metric tonnes). Overall, species expressing DVM accounted for 83%, DBM 6%, and non-migration 11% of the total lake-wide community biomass. In nearshore waters, species expressing DVM represented 74% of the biomass, DBM 25%, and non-migration 1%. In offshore waters, species expressing DVM represented 85%, DBM 1%, and non-migration 14% of the biomass. Of species expressing DVM, 83% of total biomass occurred in offshore waters. Similarly, 97% of biomass of non-migrators occurred in offshore waters while 83% of biomass of species expressing DBM occurred in nearshore waters. A high correlation (R2 = 0.996) between lake area and community biomass by depth zone resulted in 81% of the lake-wide biomass occurring in offshore waters. Accentuating this nearshore-offshore trend was one of increasing estimated total areal biomass of the fish community with depth zone, which ranged from 13.71 kg ha−1 at depths ≤40 m to 18.81 kg ha−1 at depths >160 m, emphasizing the importance of the offshore fish community to the lake ecosystem. The prevalence of diel migration expressed by Lake Superior fishes increases the potential of fish to link benthic and pelagic and shallow and deepwater habitats. These linkages enhance the potential for habitat coupling, a condition where habitats become interconnected and interdependent through transfers of energy and nutrients. Habitat coupling facilitates energy and nutrient flow through a lake ecosystem, thereby increasing productivity, especially in large lakes where benthic and pelagic, and nearshore and offshore habitats are often well separated. We propose that the application of biomass estimates to patterns of diel migration in fishes can serve as a useful metric for assessing the potential for habitat linkages and habitat coupling in lake ecosystems, and provide an important indicator of ecosystem health and function. The decline of native Lake Trout and ciscoes and recent declines in exotic Alewife and Rainbow Smelt populations in other Great Lakes have likely reduced the capacity for benthic-pelagic coupling in these systems compared to Lake Superior. We recommend comparing the levels and temporal changes in diel migration in other Great Lakes as a means to assess changes in the relative health and function of these ecosystems.
Additional publication details
Habitat use by fishes of Lake Superior. II. Consequences of diel habitat use for habitat linkages and habitat coupling in nearshore and offshore waters