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Prey size and availability limits maximum size of rainbow trout in a large tailwater: insights from a drift-foraging bioenergetics model

February 11, 2016

The cold and clear water conditions present below many large dams create ideal conditions for the development of economically important salmonid fisheries. Many of these tailwater fisheries have experienced declines in the abundance and condition of large trout species, yet the causes of these declines remain uncertain. Here, we develop, assess, and apply a drift-foraging bioenergetics model to identify the factors limiting rainbow trout (Oncorhynchus mykiss) growth in a large tailwater. We explored the relative importance of temperature, prey quantity, and prey size by constructing scenarios where these variables, both singly and in combination, were altered. Predicted growth matched empirical mass-at-age estimates, particularly for younger ages, demonstrating that the model accurately describes how current temperature and prey conditions interact to determine rainbow trout growth. Modeling scenarios that artificially inflated prey size and abundance demonstrate that rainbow trout growth is limited by the scarcity of large prey items and overall prey availability. For example, shifting 10% of the prey biomass to the 13 mm (large) length class, without increasing overall prey biomass, increased lifetime maximum mass of rainbow trout by 88%. Additionally, warmer temperatures resulted in lower predicted growth at current and lower levels of prey availability; however, growth was similar across all temperatures at higher levels of prey availability. Climate change will likely alter flow and temperature regimes in large rivers with corresponding changes to invertebrate prey resources used by fish. Broader application of drift-foraging bioenergetics models to build a mechanistic understanding of how changes to habitat conditions and prey resources affect growth of salmonids will benefit management of tailwater fisheries.