• larval fishes;
  • POM;
  • Sargassum;
  • stable isotopes;
  • trophic ecology

Stable isotope ratios of carbon (δ13C) and nitrogen (δ15N) were used to investigate feeding patterns of larval and early juvenile pelagic fishes in slope waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Contribution of organic matter supplied to fishes and trophic position within this pelagic food web was estimated in 2007 and 2008 by comparing dietary signatures of the two main producers in this ecosystem: phytoplankton [based on particulate organic matter (POM)] and Sargassum spp. Stable isotope ratios of POM and pelagic Sargassum spp. were significantly different from one another with δ13C values of POM depleted by 3–6‰ and δ15N values enriched by 2 relative to Sargassum spp. Stable isotope ratios were significantly different among the five pelagic fishes examined: blue marlin Makaira nigricans, dolphinfish Coryphaena hippurus, pompano dolphinfish Coryphaena equiselis, sailfish Istiophorus platypterus and swordfish Xiphias gladius. Mean δ13C values ranged almost 2 among fishes and were most depleted in I. platypterus. In addition, mean δ15N values ranged 4–5 with highest mean values found for both C. hippurus and C. equiselis and the lowest mean value for M. nigricans during both years. Increasing δ13C or δ15N with standard length suggested that shifts in trophic position and diet occurred during early life for several species examined. Results of a two-source mixing model suggest approximately an equal contribution of organic matter by both sources (POM = 55%; pelagic Sargassum spp. = 45%) to the early life stages of pelagic fishes examined. Contribution of organic matter, however, varied among species, and sensitivity analyses indicated that organic source estimates changed from 2 to 13% for a δ13C fractionation change of ±0·25‰ or a δ15N fractionation change of ± 1·0‰ relative to original fractionation values.