Atlantic Surfclam Connectivity within the Middle Atlantic Bight: Mechanisms Underlying Variation in Larval Transport and Settlement

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Coastal Sciences, Gulf Coast Research Laboratory


Larval transport and settlement have been shown in various studies to be essential in determining population abundance and connectivity for benthic invertebrates. This transport is influenced by both the physical environment and biological behavior. The Atlantic surfclam, Spisula solidissima, is a commercially important benthic invertebrate fishery species along the U.S northeastern coast. In this study, a physical circulation model is coupled to a surfclam larval model to investigate the dynamics of larval transport and settlement within the Middle Atlantic Bight (MAB) shelf in 2006. The main physical mechanisms causing variability in larval transport and settlement are also examined. Model results show that surfclam larvae released from July to early October experience relatively larger settlement rates, due to higher average temperatures experienced by larvae. Larval along-shore transport exhibits a mean down-coast pattern following the coastal current from the northeast to the southwest, with most high frequency (period of 2-10 days) variations caused by fluctuations in the along-shore surface wind stress, and with seasonal variations speculated to be driven mainly by changes in the across-shelf density gradient. Larval across-shelf movement is highly correlated with the along-shore surface wind stress mediated by coastal upwelling and downwelling episodes, but the correlation is further dependent on the vertical distribution of the larvae, particularly their position relative to the thermocline. Most surf clam larvae released from the Middle Atlantic shelf stay below the thermocline and experience a net onshore transport during the summer-stratified season when upwelling-favorable wind forcing dominates. A proposed critical value of water temperature at the thermocline successfully regulates the observed patterns of vertical distribution of surfclam larvae and their across-shelf movement off the New Jersey and South Virginia shelves; that is, when the water temperature at the thermocline is above the critical value (19.0 degrees C), surfclam larvae tend to escape the warm surface layer to concentrate below the thermocline and follow the across-shelf movement of bottom water, and vice versa. These results provide an important insight into the general mechanism of how physical environmental factors interact with biological behavior of the larvae to influence larval transport, connectivity and population dynamics, and also indicate the potential impact of large-scale climate change on benthic species and coastal ecosystems. (C) 2016 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.

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Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science



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