Role of Recovering River Herring Populations on Smallmouth Bass Diet and Growth
Jonathan M. Watson, Stephen M. Coghlan, Jr., Joseph Zydlewski, Daniel B. Hayes, and Daniel S. Stich
Abstract.—Fish assemblages in Atlantic coastal rivers have undergone extensive ecological change in the last two and a half centuries due to human influence, including extirpation of many migratory fish species, such as river herring Alosa spp. and introduction of nonnative piscivores, notably Smallmouth Bass Micropterus dolomieu. Recently, dam removals and fish passage improvements in the Penobscot River, Maine, have allowed river herring to return to reaches of the river that have been inaccessible since the late 19th century. Alosine populations have increased and this trend is anticipated to continue. This may increase forage in the system which could potentially increase growth for Smallmouth Bass, the dominant piscivore. We examined the diet and growth of Smallmouth Bass collected from areas of the Penobscot River watershed with and without access to river herring as prey. We collected 765 Smallmouth Bass throughout 2015, examined the stomach contents of 573 individuals, and found notable differences in diet among three river reaches with common seasonal trends. Juvenile river herring composed an average of 19% (SE = ±6%) of stomach contents by mass from Smallmouth Bass collected in the freshwater tidal area but were rarely observed in the diets upstream. We used estimates from von Bertalanffy growth models to examine differences in growth among reaches and found that asymptotic length was the longest (425 mm TL) in the Tidal reach where access to river herring was unrestricted. We then used these data to predict changes to growth associated with increased access to juvenile river herring prey with bioenergetics models. Results indicated that substituting juvenile river herring for less energy-dense prey (e.g., invertebrates) may lead to increases in seasonal growth throughout the watershed as river herring populations continue to rebound in response to dam removal. Our results provide insight into the diet and growth of Smallmouth Bass in a large New England river, and provide a foundation for future work investigating unfolding changes to these characteristics following recent dam removals.