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Virginia Institute of Marine Science

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The production of striped bass Morone saxatilis in Chesapeake Bay supports recreational and commercial fisheries along the Atlantic coast of the United States, but factors that contribute to high abundances of juvenile life stages are not fully understood. In this study, we characterized and quantified suitable and optimal habitat conditions in the Chesapeake Bay for two age groups of juvenile striped bass in discrete portions of the Bay: young-of-the-year (age-0) fish in shoreline and nearshore habitats, and resident sub-adults (age-1 to -4) in the mainstem and Bay-wide. We coupled information from 24 years of monthly fisheries surveys with hindcasts from a 3-D hydrodynamic model of the Bay and a numerical model of dissolved oxygen (DO) conditions. These models provided estimates of habitat conditions for 1996 to 2019 for 33 metrics of temperature, salinity, current speed, depth, DO, and physical features of habitats. Boosted regression trees were used to identify influential habitat covariates for each group, and those covariates were used to develop nonparametric habitat suitability models based on environmental conditions at the time and location of sampling. Habitat suitability indices (HSI), ranging from 0 (poor habitat) to 1 (high-quality habitat), were assigned to each grid in the 3-D model for each season in 1996 to 2019. We quantified suitable (HSI > 0.5) and optimal (HSI > 0.7) on a seasonal and annual basis, and across a range of environmental conditions (wet vs. dry years; warm vs. cool years). We also estimated the persistence of suitable habitats through time as the percent of years during which conditions were suitable at a given site; persistence allowed us to identify areas of the Bay and tidal tributaries that consistently supported suitable conditions for juvenile striped bass.

Specific habitat conditions that defined suitable and optimal habitats for age-0 and age 1-4 striped bass varied across seasons and among years, reflecting changes in water quality conditions in Chesapeake Bay and changes in habitat use by striped bass during their first few years of life. Metrics of water quality, especially dissolved oxygen, were consistently identified as important covariates for juvenile striped bass; these conditions are of greater importance in determining habitat suitability than specific physical features especially for a highly mobile species and may be used to inform existing decision-support tools. In our study, we found no evidence that habitat use by striped bass in Chesapeake Bay was moderated by a strict threshold for any given covariate, and average to above-average abundances of striped bass were encountered in sub-suitable conditions; thus, habitat use resulted from a combination of abiotic, and likely biotic, conditions. Neither age group exhibited a statistically significant relationship between relative abundance and the extent of suitable habitats, however, for nearly all ages and seasons, relative abundance increased with greater extent of suitable habitats suggesting that detection of this relationship requires additional annual observations. A significant decrease in the extent of suitable habitat through time (1996 to present) was observed in spring and early summer, reflecting a change in suitable environmental conditions; with additional study years, declines in the relative abundance of age-0 and age 1-4 fish may be observed as suitability of habitats continues to decline. Given the high degree of interannual variability in abundance that is characteristic of estuarine-dependent species like striped bass, the availability and quantity of suitable and high-quality habitats at the scale of individual tributaries and Bay-wide may play an important role in production of this species.


doi: 10.25773/v87b-6b43

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