Floodplain trophic subsidies in a modified river network: managed foodscapes of the future?
Context Cross-boundary subsidies create important growth opportunities for a range of taxa. In modified river systems, remnant patches of floodplain and flood bypasses become ephemeral hotspots of zooplankton production, however, the extent to which these prey items are (or could be) transported downstream is unclear. Objectives We investigated the diet of juvenile salmon under varying hydroclimatic conditions to assess the importance of floodplain-produced prey subsidies in an otherwise food-scarce region. Methods Juvenile salmon (n = 3033) and zooplankton were sampled across the California Central Valley Sacramento-San Joaquin River Delta in 2014-2018, incorporating a range of climatic conditions including drought and flood. Salmon stomach fullness and diet composition, and ambient zooplankton densities were used to assess spatiotemporal patterns in prey production and consumption. Results Floodplain-produced cladocerans provided ephemeral food pulses to juvenile salmon in downstream riverine habitats. Salmon had the fullest stomachs in wetter years (2016-2017) and the emptiest stomachs in the final year of a multi-year drought (2015). Cladoceran abundances in the water column and salmon diets were highest during wet periods and below floodplains, and decreased with increasing distance downstream, consistent with flow-mediated trophic subsidies. Conclusions These data emphasize the importance of maintaining diverse, interconnected habitats to support resilient fish populations and the potential for managing floodplains to boost prey production and delivery. Here, the inundation of a flood bypass (or lack of) played a pivotal role shaping the juvenile salmon foodscape. As freshwater ecosystems are increasingly transformed by large-scale engineering, it is important to coordinate infrastructure, habitat and flow modifications to maximize climate resilience and trophic benefits to target species.