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Environmental change drives long-term recruitment and growth variation in an estuarine fish

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Abstract

How individuals respond to environmental change determines the strength and direction of biological processes like recruitment and growth that underpin population productivity. Ascertaining the relative importance of environmental factors can, however, be difficult given the numerous mechanisms through which they affect individuals. This is especially true in dynamic and complex estuarine environments. Here, we develop long-term otolith-based indices of recruitment and growth for estuary perch Percalates colonorum (Bemm River, Australia), to explore the importance of intrinsic (individual, demographic) and extrinsic (hydrologic, climatic, density-dependent) factors in driving estuarine fish productivity. Analyses involved a novel zero-inflated specification of catch curve regression and mixed effects modelling. The 39 years of recruitment and 46 years of growth data, spanning a period of environmental change including severe drought, displayed considerable inter-annual variation. Recruitment success was strongly related to high freshwater inflows during the spawning season, suggesting that these conditions act as spawning cues for adults and potentially provide favourable conditions for larvae. Individuals displayed age-dependent growth, with highest rates observed at younger ages in years characterized by warm temperatures, and to a lesser degree, greater magnitude base inflow conditions. We detected systematic among-year-class growth differences, but these were not attributable to year class strength, suggesting that environmental conditions experienced by individuals as juveniles can have long-lasting effects of greater importance to population productivity than density-dependent growth responses. The primacy of temperature in driving growth variation highlights that under-appreciated climatic variation can affect estuarine fish productivity through direct physiological and indirect food web mechanisms. We predict that climatic warming will promote individual growth in southerly populations of P. colonorum but concurrently limit recruitment due to forecast reductions in spawning season river discharge. Disparate trait responses are likely in other fishes as they respond to multiple and changing environmental drivers, making predictions of future population productivity challenging.

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