SUMMARY 1. In a comparative study, we examined the potential for fish to structure planktonic food webs in shallow mesotrophic to hypereutrophic Northeast Brazilian reservoirs. The food webs were dominated by three guilds of fish (facultative piscivores, generalist planktivores and omnivores), small herbivorous zooplankton and bloom-forming cyanobacteria, with few littoral macrophytes.
2. A principal component's analysis on data from 13 reservoirs (27 sampling dates in 1995–99) revealed that euphotic depth, the relative density of phytoplankton (i.e. the percentage of overall phytoplankton density) represented by cyanobacteria, and the relative biomass of fish (i.e. percentage of overall biomass) represented by omnivores and facultative piscivores, explained most of the variance in the data. Physico-chemical conditions, lake morphometry and rainfall were secondary factors.
3. Phytoplankton was related to fish guild structure. Chlorophyll concentration increased with total phosphorus and the relative biomass of omnivorous fish, decreased with the relative biomass of facultative piscivores, but was unrelated to the biomass and mean body size of herbivorous zooplankton. Chlorophyll concentration and the densities of filamentous and colonial cyanobacteria decreased with the ratio of the biomass of facultative piscivores to that of omnivores (FP : OM).
4. We propose two complementary mechanisms for the observed relationships between fish and phytoplankton. At a low biomass of facultative piscivores, juvenile zooplanktivorous fishes may induce a trophic cascade on zooplankton in the littoral zone. Regardless of piscivore biomass, piscivores and omnivores may regulate phytoplankton via multichannel omnivory because of the predominance of omnivorous or detritivorous foraging behaviour.
5. Manipulative experiments are needed to explore further whether, depending on priorities in the use of the reservoir, fisheries management could alter the FP : OM ratio either to enhance fish yields or to reduce phytoplankton densities and cyanobacterial blooms.
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