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Widespread kelp-derived carbon in pelagic and benthic nearshore fishes

November 5, 2016

Kelp forests provide habitat for diverse and abundant fish assemblages, but the extent to which kelp provides a source of energy to fish and other predators is unclear. To examine the use of kelp-derived energy by fishes we estimated the contribution of kelp- and phytoplankton-derived carbon using carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) isotopes measured in muscle tissue. Benthic-foraging kelp greenling (Hexagrammos decagrammus) and pelagic-foraging black rockfish (Sebastes melanops) were collected at eight sites spanning ∼35 to 60°N from the California Current (upwelling) to Alaska Coastal Current (downwelling) in the northeast Pacific Ocean. Muscle δ13C values were expected to be higher for fish tissue primarily derived from kelp, a benthic macroalgae, and lower for tissue primarily derived from phytoplankton, pelagic microalgae. Muscle δ13C values were higher in benthic-feeding kelp greenling than in pelagic-feeding black rockfish at seven of eight sites, indicating more kelp-derived carbon in greenling as expected. Estimates of kelp carbon contributions ranged from 36 to 89% in kelp greenling and 32 to 65% in black rockfish using carbon isotope mixing models. Isotopic evidence suggests that these two nearshore fishes routinely derive energy from kelp and phytoplankton, across coastal upwelling and downwelling systems. Thus, the foraging mode of nearshore predators has a small influence on their ultimate energy source as energy produced by benthic macroalgae and pelagic microalgae were incorporated in fish tissue regardless of feeding mode and suggest strong and widespread benthic-pelagic coupling. Widespread kelp contributions to benthic- and pelagic-feeding fishes suggests that kelp energy provides a benefit to nearshore fishes and highlights the potential for kelp and fish production to be linked.