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Habitat quality of the coastal southeastern Bering Sea for juvenile flatfishes from the relationships between diet, body condition and prey availability

Yeung, Cynthia, Yang, Mei-Sun
Journal of sea research 2017 v.119 pp. 17-27
Amphipoda, Lepidopsetta polyxystra, Limanda aspera, Polychaeta, adults, body condition, coasts, diet, energy, environmental factors, fauna, fish, juveniles, muscle tissues, niches, nitrogen, ontogeny, stable isotopes, stomach, water currents, water temperature, Alaska, Bering Sea
The distribution and body condition of juvenile northern rock sole (NRS), Lepidopsetta polyxystra, and yellowfin sole (YFS), Limanda aspera, were studied in relation to prey availability across the coastal shelf at the Alaska Peninsula boundary of the eastern Bering Sea (EBS) to assess spatial variability in habitat quality. Juveniles of ≤20cm and adults of ≥30cm total length were collected from bottom trawl catch samples at stations located 10 to 120km from the Alaska Peninsula coast, and in bottom depths of 28 to 85m. Stomach contents and stable isotopes of carbon and nitrogen from muscle tissue were analyzed to describe diet composition. The quantity and quality of prey did not significantly affect the distribution of juvenile NRS and YFS. Spatial mismatch between the diet composition and the infauna prey assemblage suggested that prey availability was not limiting across the area, allowing fish to select for prey, presumably to maximize net energy gain. The body condition of juvenile NRS was higher in the eastern section of the area (Bristol Bay) – where they shared spatial and dietary niches with juvenile YFS, than in the west section (Unimak Island) where juvenile YFS were largely absent. A difference in body condition suggests that habitat quality may be higher in Bristol Bay. For NRS, stomach contents and stable isotopes in muscle tissue indicated an ontogenetic diet shift from amphipods to polychaetes from juvenile to adult stages. In contrast, for YFS, amphipods seemed to remain the primary prey and polychaetes the least important prey from juvenile to adult stage. Given that the high prey availability found in this south coastal area of EBS extends to areas across the EBS shelf, favorable habitat for juvenile flatfishes should be extensive. However, much of this potential juvenile habitat is underutilized by NRS, which were mainly limited to Bristol Bay and the Alaska Peninsula, whereas YFS did extend north over 500km from Bristol Bay along the inner shelf domain (≤50m deep). Abiotic factors, particularly ocean currents and water temperature, may be more significant than prey availability in the spatial distribution of juveniles. Thus, changes in the hydrographic and thermal regime of the EBS are likely to impact juvenile flatfish distribution and habitat productivity.