Assessing the consequences of habitat fragmentation for two migratory salmonid fishes

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ABSTRACT

  1. Man-made barriers such as dams affect the movement of aquatic species, reducing gene flow and genetic variability. Such encroachments may also lead to selective changes in life history and behaviour. Hydropower construction worldwide has fragmented many previously continuous fish habitats, leading to loss of populations and production. It is therefore important to assess potential impacts on habitats before such developments begin.
  2. Here, the potential ecological and evolutionary consequences of planned hydropower development on two migratory salmonid fishes – brown trout (Salmo trutta) and European grayling (Thymallus thymallus) – were assessed, combining telemetry with population genetics. Almost 200 fish were radio-tagged and tracked weekly between March and November. Using microsatellite markers, the genetic population structure was assessed and the number of migrants among different river sections identified for both species.
  3. Overall, both species displayed extensive within- and between-river movement, with larger home ranges in grayling than in trout. Regular movements between distinct spawning, feeding and wintering areas were common. These vital habitats were often located within areas of planned hydropower development.
  4. Both species exhibited significant population genetic structuring within the study area, with waterfalls acting as impassable barriers to upstream gene flow for grayling. The structuring was more developed for trout than for grayling. However, downstream gene flow was common, resulting in a highly admixed trout population below a waterfall.
  5. The large-scale movement patterns and extensive connectivity of the system indicate that habitat fragmentation and changes in water flow will adversely affect both species, but most strongly the trout. The reduction in water flow over large and productive stretches of the river might select for less migratory genotypes in both species. The loss of particular genotypes may reduce the biocomplexity of the system and overall population resilience.

Copyright © 2013 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.

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