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Impacts of periodic dredging on macroinvertebrate prey availability for benthic foraging fishes in central San Francisco Bay, California

September 11, 2020


Because of its importance for species covered under Federal Fishery Management Plans (FMPs), the San Francisco Bay (SFB) estuary has been designated as Essential Fish Habitat (EFH) under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA; 16 United States Code §18559b). Within this estuary, benthic macroinvertebrate communities provide important prey resources for many economically significant fish species that rely on EFH. Periodic maintenance dredging can impact benthic communities; however, there is a lack of scientific information specific to SFB regarding dredging effects on macroinvertebrates in fish foraging areas. In addition, rates of benthic community recolonization and recovery following dredging and subsequent effects on foraging fish are unknown. For this reason, it is difficult for regulatory and resource agencies to determine the impacts of maintenance dredging. Thus, the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) and the consortium of agencies (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency [EPA], U.S. Army Corp of Engineers [USACE], San Francisco Regional Water Quality Control Board [SFRWQCB], and San Francisco Bay Conservation and Development Commission [BCDC]) that make up the San Francisco Bay Long Term Management Strategy for Dredging (LTMS) identified a study of dredging impacts on SFB fish foraging habitat as one of their highest priorities in their 2011 Programmatic EFH Agreement (U.S. Army Corp of Engineers and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, 2011). 

The LTMS agencies identified the region of interest as shallow (<13 feet [<4 meters (m)] mean lower low water [MLLW]), soft-bottom (silt/clay soil texture) areas in the Central Bay of SFB that were periodically dredged (every 1–3 years). Fish species of interest were compiled by NMFS and included those managed by the Pacific Groundfish, Pacific Salmon, and Coastal Pelagic FMPs (pursuant to the MSA) as well as those listed under the California State or Federal Endangered Species Act (ESA; 16 U.S.C. §1531–1544) as threatened or endangered. Target species included leopard shark (Triakis semifasciata), big skate (Raja binoculata), English sole (Parophrys vetulus), starry flounder (Platichthys stellatus), brown rockfish (Sebastes auriculatus), green sturgeon (Acipenser medirostris; threatened species under Federal ESA), northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax), longfin smelt (Spirinchus thaleichthys, threatened under California ESA), and Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax). In addition, Dungeness crab (Cancer magister), California halibut (Paralichthys californicus), and white sturgeon (Acipenser transmontanus) also were included because they are substantial contributors to the California State fishery. 

To address LTMS priorities, U.S. Geological Survey, Western Ecological Research Center, San Francisco Bay Estuary Field Station (hereafter USGS) conducted a multi-phased project including an initial literature review, study design, pilot study, and implementation of a full study. The overarching goal was to assess the effects of periodic dredge operations (every 1–3 years) on benthic habitat for foraging fish in the Central Bay, with emphasis on the foraging requirements of target fish species and analyses of benthic macroinvertebrates in dredged areas compared to adjacent undredged reference areas. The USGS partnered with University of California, Davis, fisheries expert James Hobbs to synthesize existing knowledge of fish foraging ecology and review benthic infauna community composition in SFB with a focus on the Central Bay. The literature review (Phase I; De La Cruz and others, 2016) addressed key questions identified by the LTMS on benthic foraging fish in the study area, including the following: (1) What are target fish eating? (2) What are the seasonal differences in prey items and macroinvertebrate assemblages? (3) What are the annual differences in prey items and macroinvertebrate assemblages? (4) What are the predominant macroinvertebrate functional groups from the perspective of fish foraging? Phase II consisted of creating a framework for a functional assessment of maintenance dredging effects on foraging fish and drafting a full study design (De La Cruz and others, 2017), which was then tested in the Phase III pilot study. The Phase IV full study incorporated lessons learned from the pilot study. Here we focus on the results of the full study and implications for benthic foraging fishes.

Publication Year 2020
Title Impacts of periodic dredging on macroinvertebrate prey availability for benthic foraging fishes in central San Francisco Bay, California
DOI 10.3133/ofr20201086
Authors Susan E. W. De La Cruz, Isa Woo, Laurie Hall, Alison Flanagan, Hannah Mittelstaedt
Publication Type Report
Publication Subtype USGS Numbered Series
Series Title Open-File Report
Series Number 2020-1086
Index ID ofr20201086
Record Source USGS Publications Warehouse
USGS Organization Western Ecological Research Center