Marine and Estuarine Water Column Habitat

3.2.6 Marine and Estuarine Water Column Habitat

Description and Distribution 

This habitat traditionally comprises four salinity categories: oligohaline (< 8 ppt), mesohaline (8 -18 ppt), and polyhaline waters (18 - 30 ppt) with some euhaline water (>30 ppt) around inlets. Alternatively, a three-tier salinity classification is presented by Schreiber and Gill (1995) in their prototype document developing approaches for identifying and assessing important fish habitats: tidal fresh (0-0.5 ppt), mixing (0.5-25 ppt), and seawater (>25 ppt). Saline environments have moving boundaries, but are generally maintained by sea water transported through inlets by tide and wind mixing with fresh water supplied by land runoff. Particulate materials settle from these mixing waters and accumulate as bottom sediments. Coarser-grained sediments, saline waters, and migrating organisms are introduced from the ocean, while finer grained sediments, nutrients, organic matter, and fresh water are input from rivers and tidal creeks. The sea water component stabilizes the system, with its abundant supply of inorganic chemicals and its relatively conservative temperatures. Closer to the sea, rapid changes in variables such as temperature are moderate compared to shallow upstream waters. Without periodic additions of sea water, seasonal thermal extremes would reduce the biological capacity of the water column as well as reduce the recruitment of fauna from the ocean. While nearby wetlands contain some assimilative capacity abating nutrient enrichment, fresh water inflow and tidal flushing are primarily important for circulation and removal of nutrients and wastes from the estuary. 

The water column is composed of horizontal and vertical components. Horizontally, salinity gradients (decreasing landward) strongly influence the distribution of biota, both directly (physiologically) and indirectly (e.g., emergent vegetation distribution). Horizontal gradients of nutrients, decreasing seaward, affect primarily the distribution of phytoplankton and, secondarily, organisms utilizing this primary productivity. Vertically, the water column may be stratified by salinity (fresh water runoff overlaying heavier salt water), oxygen content (lower values at the bottom associated with high biological oxygen demand due to inadequate vertical mixing), and nutrients, pesticides, industrial wastes, and pathogens (build up to abnormal levels near the bottom from lack of vertical mixing). 

Typically, parameters of the following variables can be used to chemically, physically, or biologically characterize the water column: total nitrogen, total organic nitrogen, alkaline phosphatase, total organic carbon, NO2-, NO3-, NH4+, turbidity, total phosphorus, chlorophyll a, dissolved oxygen, temperature, and salinity (see Boyer et al. 1997). 

Composite signatures by these variables can be used to identify the source of the water column. Components commonly used to describe the water column are organic matter, dissolved inorganic nitrogen, dissolved oxygen, temperature, salinity, and phytoplankton. Additional physical descriptors of the water column include depth, fetch, and adjacent structure (e.g., marshes, channels, shoals). Turbidity is quantified by secchi depth, light attenuation, and NTU. Increases in turbidity, resulting from large river flow runoff or strong wind events, affect the distribution and productivity of submerged aquatic vegetation and phytoplankton through reduction of light levels necessary for photosynthesis and changes in nutrient concentrations. 

The quality of our coastal waters affects fish species diversity, production, and distribution but also living fish habitats, such as submerged aquatic vegetation and oyster beds (shell bottom). Water quality in the water column is a key factor that links fish, habitat, and people. That linkage is affected by growing development pressures along our coast as well as far inland, making the protection and enhancement of water quality for fisheries resources a challenging task. Determining the best course of action for enhancing water quality requires detailed knowledge of the water quality characteristics that various species require throughout their life cycle, along with the status, trends, and threats of those characteristics. 

Water column habitat is defined in this plan as the water covering a submerged surface and its physical, chemical, and biological characteristics. Differences in the chemical and physical properties of the water affect the biological components of the water column, including fish distribution. Water column properties that nutrients (nitrogen, phosphorus), and chlorophyll a (SAFMC 1998a). Other factors, such as depth, pH, water velocity and movement, and water clarity, also affect the distribution of aquatic organisms. 

Water column characteristics in estuaries are a dynamic mix of adjacent riverine and marine systems. Estuaries occupy the transition between freshwater and marine systems, where circulation patterns are determined by prevailing winds, buoyancy-driven flows, and lunar tides. Estuaries are important habitats for many economically important species in the South Atlantic. In North Carolina, for instance, estuarine-dependent species comprise more than 90% of commercial fisheries landings and over 60% of the recreational harvest (by weight) (from DMF annual commercial and recreational fisheries landings data). 

Three salinity zones are used for simplicity and consistency with established definitions (Bulger et al. 1993): 

 low-salinity (0.5-5 ppt) (also known as oligohaline) 

 moderate-salinity (5-18 ppt) (also known as mesohaline) 

 high-salinity (18-30 ppt) (also known as polyhaline) 

Boundaries between salinity zones change in response to water flow, weather conditions, and tidal fluctuations. Flooding can result in fresh water expanding seaward over denser masses of water in the mixing zone (0.5 - 25 ppt). Conversely, dry weather can result in seawater advancing into typically freshwater areas. Less drastic are tidal changes resulting in periodic additions of seawater to the mixing zone. The mixing zone receives coarser-grained sediments, saline water, and migrating organisms from the flood tide, while the ebb tide brings finer-grained sediment, fresh water, nutrients, and organic matter (SAFMC 1998a). This dynamic system is mediated by a series of inlets along a chain of barrier islands separating the ocean from the adjacent estuary. Salinity in estuaries also varies in accordance with the seasonal pattern of river input depicted in Figure 3.2-17. Salinity within estuaries is generally lowest from December to early spring and highest from late spring to early fall (Orlando et al. 1994). Similarly, water temperatures are lowest during mid-winter and highest during the summer. Pilkey et al.‘s (1998) analysis of North Carolina‘s shore and barrier islands revealed much about the variation in salinity and tidal amplitude along North Carolina‘s coast due to the slope of the coast.

Figure 3.2-17. Average and standard deviation of monthly discharge (time period: 1969 1999, n = 1,464) and water temperature (time period: 1953-2001, data points per month = 52-123). [Source: USGS hydrologic monitoring stations on the lower Roanoke, Tar, Neuse, and Cape Fear rivers, North Carolina. 

Steeper slopes with relatively short basin profiles result in less river input and greater tidal amplitude from increasing oceanic influence. In these areas, numerous inlets develop along short barrier islands, protecting narrow, back barrier sounds. Small rivers draining these areas form trunk estuaries (drowned river estuaries perpendicular to the coast) where low volumes of organic-stained fresh water mix with seawater. As a result, small trunk estuaries exhibit a distinct salinity gradient from upstream fresh waters to the ocean, while narrow back barrier sounds maintain high salinities from regular lunar tides. 

Other areas have gentler slopes and relatively long basin profiles, with more river input and lower tidal amplitude from reduced seawater intrusion; such areas have few inlets and long barrier islands protecting extensive back barrier sounds with highly variable salinity. Large rivers flowing into the sounds form trunk estuaries with very low salinity. Strong winds are a major component of water movement in large, irregularly flooded estuarine systems. 

At locations relatively isolated from inlets in the Albemarle-Pamlico Sound system, the effects of lunar tides are small (a few inches at most) whereas those of wind tides can be much greater (especially during storms). A strong wind tide often floods the windward shore, exposing bottom along the leeward shore. This situation can also result in colder, nutrient-rich water welling up along the leeward shore. Wind tides also affect salinity in the estuary, by pushing high-salinity water from the ocean toward the estuary. For example, one model of the Albemarle-Pamlico system indicates that southwesterly winds cause the formation of low-salinity plumes from Oregon Inlet seaward while wedge-shaped high-salinity plumes enter Pamlico Sound from Hatteras and Ocracoke inlets (Xie and Pietrafesa 1999). This hydrodynamic model predicted the opposite effect during cold fronts, when northwesterly winds caused a wedge-shaped, high-salinity plume on the sound side of Oregon Inlet. 

Circulation, by wind or lunar tide, can increase DO levels in bottom water. But while lunar-driven systems receive regular circulation, wind-driven systems depend on variable weather conditions (Luettich et al. 1999; Borsuk et al. 2001). Irregular mixing can result in stratification of the water column and hypoxia or anoxia during periods of warm, calm weather. Anoxia can also develop with light winds if a strong vertical salinity gradient is present, especially during westerly winds. 

Large back barrier sounds and trunk estuaries 

In North Carolina, large back barrier sounds occur north of Cape Lookout and include Albemarle, Currituck, Croatan, Roanoke, and Pamlico sounds. Large trunk estuaries flowing into these northern sounds include the Alligator, Pungo, Pamlico, and lower Neuse rivers. The Albemarle-Pamlico sound system (not including Core Sound) connects with nearshore ocean waters through Oregon Inlet in the north, and Hatteras and Ocracoke inlets in the south. These large sounds are of prime importance for North Carolina‘s fishery productivity. Small tributary estuaries in west and northwest Pamlico Sound provide important fish nursery habitat. Outstanding Resource Waters within these northern estuaries include the Alligator River and an area extending offshore from Swan Quarter National Wildlife Refuge. The Alligator River is also classified as Swamp Water. Nutrient Sensitive Waters include the Pamlico, Neuse, and Pungo rivers as well as southwest Pamlico Sound. 

The Albemarle-Pamlico system has a long flushing period (about 272 days) relative to the other North Carolina estuarine systems. Since the large trunk estuaries flowing into Pamlico Sound flush more rapidly than Pamlico Sound, the sound acts as a settling basin for sediments and nutrients (Giese et al. 1979). Near inlets in the Albemarle-Pamlico system, lunar tides are the dominant influence on salinity variation and water column mixing (Orlando et al. 1994). Elsewhere, wind mixing is the dominant factor. 

Management of river flows can also affect salinity. Releases from Roanoke Rapids Lake and other Roanoke River reservoirs during low-flow periods are generally effective in keeping higher salinity waters out of Albemarle Sound (Giese et al. 1979), except during extreme droughts. Seasonal variation in fresh water has a major effect on salinity. Different salinity layers can occur in estuaries lacking a direct connection to the ocean, such as the Cape Fear and Northeast Cape Fear rivers (Orlando et al. 1994). Different salinity layers can also occur in Albemarle Sound during period of calm or high freshwater inflow (Steel 1991). Although the major factors driving large-scale salinity change are fairly simple in estuaries, the factors underlying smaller-scale horizontal and vertical variation can be very complex, both spatially and temporally. 

Small back barrier sounds and trunk estuaries 

South of Cape Lookout, back barrier sounds and trunk estuaries begin to narrow as the basin slope becomes steeper. Starting at Core Sound in the north, small back barrier sounds continue south with Bogue Sound and some very narrow sounds located between the small trunk estuaries of the New and White Oak estuaries and the more riverine lower Cape Fear River. Some of these smaller sounds are Stump Sound, Topsail Sound, Masonboro Sound, and Myrtle Grove Sound. Other small trunk estuaries include the Newport and North rivers along Bogue and Back sounds. These small back barrier and trunk estuaries contain numerous designated nursery areas and Outstanding Resource Waters. The only Nutrient Sensitive Water among small back barrier sounds and trunk estuaries is the upper New River (DWQ unpub. data). 

In Bogue and Back sounds, lunar tides are the dominant influence on salinity and water column mixing (Orlando et al. 1994) and flushing rates are faster than in the larger sounds. Winds and freshwater inflow are secondary influences on salinity variation, but may cause major seasonal differences in salinity. 

During late winter (January-March) and summer (June-August), surface and bottom salinities are only weakly stratified in Bogue Sound. Large seasonal differences in surface salinity occur. The very small back barrier sounds found in the southern estuaries have high salinities year-round. In upper sections of the New River, freshwater inflow is the dominant influence on salinity (Orlando et al. 1994). In the lower New River estuary, lunar tides have the greatest influence on salinity variation. 

Cape Fear River estuary 

The Cape Fear River is the only major river in North Carolina flowing directly into the ocean, making the Cape Fear River estuary unique among North Carolina estuaries. The lower river is essentially a large trunk estuary, but with a much steeper gradient in salinity than large trunk estuaries in the northern part of the coast. The upper Cape Fear estuary is composed almost entirely of low-moderate salinity fish nursery areas. 

In the upper Cape Fear River estuary (north of Wilmington), seasonal patterns of freshwater inflow have the greatest influence on salinity (Orlando et al. 1994). Discharge from the principal rivers in the Cape Fear basin is three times greater during the high-flow period than during the low-flow period. Short-term increases in freshwater discharge also influence salinity in the upper estuary, displacing bottom water downstream and homogenizing the water column (Giese et al. 1979). In the lower and middle estuary, lunar tides have the dominant effect on salinity variation. Due to the relatively high discharge and low volume of the Cape Fear estuary, the flushing rate is approximately 14 days (Table 3.2-8), the most rapid turnover among major estuaries in North Carolina. 

Table 3.2-8. Hydrologic and hydrodynamic characteristics of major estuaries in North Carolina.

(Note: flushing period = volume / average daily freshwater input; Source: Basta et al. 1990). 

Ecological Role and Function 

(excerpted from the NCHPP) 

The water column is the lifeblood of aquatic ecosystems. It is the medium through which all other aquatic habitats are connected. As such, the water column provides a basic ecological role and function for organisms within it. The water column also provides other functions, both by itself and due to benthic-pelagic coupling. Benthic-pelagic coupling refers to the influence of the benthic community and sediments on the water column and, in turn, the influence of the water column on them, through integrated events and processes such as resuspension, settlement, and absorption (Warwick 1993). 

Productivity 

The potential productivity of fish and invertebrates in a system is determined by the assimilation of energy and nutrients by green plants and other life at the base of the food chain. The potential productivity of a habitat can indicate its relative value in supporting fish populations. Although 

productivity in the water column is derived mostly from phytoplankton, it can also come from bacterial decomposition of plants (detritus), floating plants, and macroalgae. 

Historically, phytoplankton productivity in estuarine systems was thought to be relatively low compared to that of other primary producers (Peterson and Peterson 1979). For instance, Marshall (1970) estimated that phytoplankton contributed only 50 g carbon/m2/yr to New England‘s subtidal shoal waters, compared to a contribution of 125 g carbon/m2/yr for all macrophytes. In the Newport River estuary near Beaufort, North Carolina, Williams and Murdoch (1966) and Thayer (1971) estimated that phytoplankton produce about 110 g carbon/m2/yr. Subsequent research suggested a higher contribution to overall primary production from phytoplankton (Peterson and Peterson 1979). Sellner and Zingmark (1976) found phytoplankton production as high as 350 g carbon/m2/yr in shallow tidal creeks and estuaries of South Carolina. Various data sources for North Carolina estimate phytoplankton productivity anywhere from 67 (Beaufort Channel adjacent estuaries) to 500 g carbon/m2/yr (Pamlico River estuary) during the growing season. Mallin et al. (2000a) found that the highest phytoplankton production is in riverine estuaries where flushing is limited by extensive barrier islands (e.g., Neuse River), whereas areas that are well flushed or unconstrained (e.g., Cape Fear River) support a much lower phytoplankton biomass and productivity. Complex, estuarine creek/salt marsh systems generally have moderate phytoplankton productivity. Lucas et al. (1999) used a depth-averaged numerical model to predict the productivity of phytoplankton in an estuary with shallow shoals, deep channels, and variable turbidity and benthic grazing. The model predicted that phytoplankton growth rate was generally greater in deeper areas when benthic grazing is high and turbidity is low. Conversely, when turbidity was high and benthic grazing was low, phytoplankton growth rate was generally greater in shallow areas. 

However, phytoplankton productivity is still generally considered secondary to detritus-based production in salt marsh-dominated estuaries (Peterson and Peterson 1979; Dame et al. 2000). A study conducted on a Georgia salt marsh found a net productivity of 6,850 kcal/m2/year from emergent vegetation and only 1,600 kcal/m2/yr from the various algae (Teal 1962). Compared to broad, open water areas, narrow tidal creeks and their associated marsh would likely contribute more detritus than phytoplankton. However, some research suggests that much of the detrital production from emergent vegetation remains in the marsh and that phytoplankton are the major production export (Haines 1979). Planktivorous fish (e.g., menhaden) and detritivores (e.g., shrimp) can also export production from shallow marsh creeks and bays to more open waters (SAFMC 1998a). 

Phytoplankton production in shallow estuaries may also be secondary to phytobenthic (microscopic plants that live on the bottom) production. In North Carolina, benthic microalgal biomass frequently exceeds phytoplankton in the nearshore ocean water column by a factor of 10 to 100 (Cahoon and Cooke 1992). Based on relative rates of primary production and nutrient cycling, Webster et al. (2002) found that phytobenthos was the dominant primary producer in a shallow estuary where light was not limiting; however, these results may not be applicable to North Carolina estuaries with higher turbidity. Net productivity for any given estuary depends on the relative proportion of wetlands, shallow soft bottom, and water column in the system. 

Salinity 

Salinity has a major role in the distribution of aquatic species (Szedlmayer and Able 1996). Some aquatic species are capable of tolerating large variations in salinity (e.g., blue crab), while others are capable of living in only a narrow salinity range (e.g., black sea bass). 

Temperature 

In general, all estuarine organisms can tolerate a very wide range of temperatures, if given adequate time to acclimate (Nybakken 1993). Organisms cannot readily adapt to a rapid increase or decrease in temperature. Early life stages of many species (e.g., clams, oysters, spot, croaker, flounder, menhaden) have a much narrower temperature tolerance than adults (Kennedy et al. 1974). If water temperature becomes too low, or falls too rapidly, there can be a fish kill of sensitive species like seatrout and red drum. Great variability in annual reported catch is typical for seatrout species and seems related to climatic conditions of the preceding winter and spring. Low catches follow severe winters; winter cold shock of juveniles and adults is cited as a primary factor in local and coast-wide declines in spotted seatrout (<http://www.ncdmf.net/stocks/spectrou.htm>, July 2003). 

Dissolved oxygen 

All fish and invertebrates require a minimum amount of dissolved oxygen (DO) to survive, and an even greater amount for growth and reproduction. Oxygen tolerance varies by organism type. Not accounting for mobility, fish are generally most sensitive to hypoxia (low dissolved oxygen; DO < 2 mg/l), followed by crustaceans and echinoderms, annelid worms, and mollusks (clams, oysters) (Gray et al. 2002). However, because highly mobile organisms can avoid areas of low DO, they are least affected by hypoxia. Although benthic invertebrates are fairly tolerant of low oxygen (Diaz and Rosenburg 1995), stationary invertebrates are helpless against prolonged anoxia. Therefore, DO is considered a critical factor affecting the survival of stationary benthic invertebrates and sedentary fishes and the distribution of mobile species (Seliger et al. 1985; Jordan et al. 1992; Eby et al. 2000; Buzzelli et al. 2002). 

Light and water clarity 

Water clarity is determined by the concentration of dissolved and suspended organic and inorganic particles in the water column. Water clarity and the resulting light availability in the water column are important to aquatic organisms for several reasons. The combination of increasing light, water velocity, and temperature during spring is the primary cue for upstream movement and spawning of anadromous fish (Klauda et al. 1991; Orth and White 1993). Extreme turbidity is known to reduce phytoplankton and submerged aquatic vegetation biomass, reduce visibility of pelagic food, reduce availability of benthic food due to smothering or bottom water hypoxia, and clog gill rakers and gill filaments (Bruton 1985). Turbidity also reduces a predator‘s visual range, which therefore reduces reactive distance (Barrett et al. 1992; Gregory and Northcote 1993), volume of water searched, and feeding efficiency (Moore and Moore 1976; Vingard and O‘Brien 1976; Gardner 1981). 

The estuarine water column typically has relatively high loading of suspended particles (phytoplankton, detritus, and/or sediment) and reduced water clarity (Nybakken 1993). Some species are adapted to turbid conditions, and the water clarity preference of many estuarine species at various stages of their life cycle is not known (Funderburk et al. 1991). Although excessive turbidity can be problematic, moderate turbidity in estuaries can be beneficial to small or non-visually feeding fish by affording protection from visually feeding predators in shallow, food-rich areas (Ritchie 1972; Blader and Blader 1980; Boehlert and Morgan 1985; Bruton 1985; Miller et al. 1985). Because there is an increased risk of predation in clear waters, some sedentary prey use cryptic coloration, bury under sand, or seek refuge in adjacent habitats to avoid detection. Distinctive aquatic communities can thus be found in turbid and clear water bodies. While water clarity could have an effect on fish species composition, it would be difficult to separate changes in species composition due to water clarity from correlated environmental changes such as salinity, temperature, and depth. 

Flow and water movement 

Estuaries are mixing zones with complex water movements between fresh and salt water. The four principal factors that affect water movement in North Carolina‘s estuaries are: (1) rainfall (inflow), (2) wind, (3) lunar tides, and (4) density gradients (salinity and temperature) (DMF 2003b). In some freshwater rivers, flow may also be drastically affected by reservoir releases. Each creek, river, bay, or sound is uniquely different due to these four factors. 

Variation in water flow occurs at a broad range of spatial scales in estuarine and marine systems. The interaction of topographic features (e.g., shoals, bays) and tidal or wind-driven circulation patterns creates large-scale (km) spatial variation (Xie and Eggleston 1999; Inoue and Wiseman 2000). At much smaller scales (<1m), topographic changes or the presence of bottom habitat structure (e.g., SAV, oyster reef, pilings, stumps, logs) can create areas of reduced and increased water velocity (Jokiel 1978; Gambi et al. 1990; Komatsu and Murakami 1994; Lenihan 1998). Temporal variation in flow is caused by regular tidal flushing or irregular circulation by the wind. 

Each organism in an estuary relies upon certain circulation patterns to provide the conditions that it needs to flourish at a given life stage. Some conditions benefit one species or species‘ life stage more than others. The conditions needed by a species do not always occur at the same time and location each year due to variations in weather. However, the expansive nature of many South Atlantic estuaries almost assures that proper conditions for a particular species will occur somewhere, but conditions may not be optimal in all locations (NCDMF 2003b). 

The aquatic organisms that flourish in estuaries rely on flow and water movement to: (1) deliver the nutrients and physical water conditions for appropriate food and nursery area development at the opportune time; (2) keep eggs and larvae of pelagic spawners in suspension to enhance survival; (3) transport and distribute eggs, larvae, and juveniles to the appropriate nursery area for optimum food availability and protection from predators; and (4) distribute sediment and affect structures that serve as habitats (i.e., shell bottom, SAV, soft bottom) for many fish species (DMF 2003b). 

High flows serve as a cue for spawning activity of anadromous fish, whereas low flows correspond to the growth and recruitment period of young fish (Orth and White 1993). Successful spawning of striped bass coincides with optimal water velocities between 3.3 and 6.6 ft/s (100-200 cm/s), while adult American shad prefer water velocities between 2 and 3 ft/s (61-91 cm/s) (Fay et al. 1983d; Mackenzie et al. 1985; Hill et al. 1989). Recruitment of larval river herring in tributaries of the Chowan system is also related to flow conditions (O‘Rear 1983). However, water velocity is not the only cue for anadromous fish spawning; increasing light and temperature are also important factors. 

Flows have a major effect on biological interactions. Powers and Kittinger (2002) found that blue crab predation on juvenile hard clams and bay scallops decreased with increasing water velocity, while whelk predation on bay scallops increased under the same treatment. Dilution of water-borne chemical cues was likely the reason for reduced blue crab predation (Powers and Kittinger 2002). Tamburri et al. (1996) found that chemical cues successfully induced larval settlement of oysters regardless of flow conditions. In another study, Palmer (1988) showed that higher current velocities increased erosion of small animals from below the sediment surface (meiofauna) into the water column, resulting in increased predation by spot (a more non-visual feeder). Species that rely primarily on visual cues would not be affected by dilution of chemical cues. However, all mobile aquatic organisms (including visual predators) also seek to minimize the energetic cost of movement through the water column while maximizing foraging efficiency. 

As fish grow and develop, flow regime requirements or preferences change (Ross and Epperly 1985). Larvae and juveniles generally prefer lower velocities than adults, enabling them to settle out and maintain their positions in the estuary. Consequently, juvenile, estuarine-dependent fish are highly abundant in shallow, side-channel habitats where velocities are low (Ross and Epperly 1985; Noble and Monroe 1991). 

There is little information on flow preference of estuarine species. Hydrologic modifications can, in some situations, negatively impact optimum flow conditions for aquatic organisms. 

pH 

The pH of the water column is a basic chemical characteristic that affects egg development, reproduction, and the ability of fish to absorb DO (Wilbur and Pentony 1999). Among freshwater, estuarine, and marine systems, pH varies naturally, and the organisms of the aquatic community have adapted to that natural variation. However, most fish require pH >5 (Wilbur and Pentony 1999), within a possible range of 0 (extremely acidic) – 14 (extremely basic). The pH of estuaries depends on the dynamic mix of seawater and upstream fresh waters. In high-salinity estuaries with little river input, pH is near that of seawater. Fresh water has the most variable pH, depending on the buffering, or acid controlling, capacity of the water and organic matter input. Freshwater water bodies with low buffering capacity and high organic matter (e.g., swampy creeks) can have very low pH (<5). 

The pH of the water is an important requirement for reproduction of estuarine organisms. For example, the optimum pH for normal egg development and larval growth of oysters occurs between 8.25 and 8.5 (Calabrese and Davis 1966; Calabrese 1972). Oysters also have an optimum pH of 7.8 for spawning and >6.75 for successful recruitment. Likewise, hard clam eggs and larvae require pH levels of 7.0-8.75 and 7.5-8.5, respectively, for the same functions (Funderburk et al. 1991). Anadromous fish species can generally tolerate fresh water with lower pH. For example, alewife eggs and larvae require pH between 5.0-8.5 pH and blueback herring eggs and larvae require pH levels between 5.7-8.5 (Funderburk et al. 1991). This pattern of pH requirements between systems also illustrates the adaptation of freshwater and estuarine organisms to their environment. 

Species composition and community structure 

In many South Atlantic estuaries, during spring and summer, juvenile and adult estuarine species spawned in high-salinity estuarine waters (e.g., blue crab, red drum, weakfish) or the nearshore ocean (e.g., Atlantic menhaden, Atlantic croaker, spot, southern flounder) occupy the low-salinity zone (Table 3.2-9). There are also some resident species that complete their entire life cycle in the low-salinity zone. Residents include estuarine species like bay anchovy but are dominated by freshwater species, such as white perch, yellow perch, catfishes, sunfishes, and minnows (Keefe and Harriss 1981; Copeland et al. 1983; Epperly 1984). Prominent species in this resident group include the spring-spawning white perch and white catfish (Keefe and Harriss 1981). The low-salinity zone is also occupied by the catadromous American eel. 

In moderate- and high-salinity estuarine zones, the young of offshore winter and spring spawners, such as Atlantic menhaden, spot, and Atlantic croaker, predominate (Table 3.2-9). See also Essential Fish Habitat section below. 


Table 3.2-9. Spawning location/strategy (―spawning guild‖) and vertical orientation of some prominent coastal fish and invertebrate species. (Street et al. 2005)