Ecology and evolution

Life history constraints explain negative relationship between fish productivity and dissolved organic carbon in lakes.

PMID 28861225


Resource availability constrains the life history strategies available to organisms and may thereby limit population growth rates and productivity. We used this conceptual framework to explore the mechanisms driving recently reported negative relationships between fish productivity and dissolved organic carbon (DOC) concentrations in lakes. We studied populations of bluegill (Lepomis macrochirus) in a set of lakes with DOC concentrations ranging from 3 to 24 mg/L; previous work has demonstrated that primary and secondary productivity of food webs is negatively related to DOC concentration across this gradient. For each population, we quantified individual growth rate, age at maturity, age-specific fecundity, maximum age, length-weight and length-egg size relationships, and other life history characteristics. We observed a strong negative relationship between maximum size and DOC concentration; for instance, fish reached masses of 150 to 260 g in low-DOC lakes but <120 g in high-DOC lakes. Relationships between fecundity and length, and between egg size and length, were constant across the DOC gradient. Because fish in high-DOC lakes reached smaller sizes but had similar fecundity and egg size at a given size, their total lifetime fecundity was as much as two orders of magnitude lower than fish in low-DOC lakes. High DOC concentrations appeared to constrain the range of bluegill life history strategies available; populations in high-DOC lakes always had low initial growth rates and high ages at maturity, whereas populations in low-DOC showed higher variability in these traits. This was also the case for the intrinsic rates of natural increase of these populations, which were always low at the high end of the DOC gradient. The potentially lower capacity for fish populations in high-DOC lakes to recover from exploitation has clear implications for the sustainable management of recreational fisheries in the face of considerable spatial heterogeneity and ongoing temporal change in lake DOC concentrations.