1. Anthropogenic disturbances of the physical habitat and corresponding effects on fish performance are key issues in stream conservation and restoration. Reduced habitat complexity because of increased sediment loadings and canalization is of particular importance, but it is not clear to what extent fish populations are influenced directly by changes in the physical environment, or indirectly through changes in the biotic environment affecting the food availability.
2. Here, we test for the direct effect of habitat complexity on the performance (growth) of juvenile Atlantic salmon by manipulating shelter availability (interstitial spaces in the substrate) across 20 semi-natural stream channels without altering the substrate composition, and stocking each channel with a common density of fish. A simple method for measuring salmonid shelters using flexible PVC tubes was developed and tested. Daytime sheltering behaviour and growth rates were compared across the channels differing in shelter availability.
3. Measured shelter availability was strongly negatively correlated with observed number of fish not finding shelters and mass loss rates of the fish (growth performance) increased with decreasing number of measured shelters. Number and mean depth of interstitial spaces explained up to 68% and 24% of the among-channel variation in sheltering behaviour and growth performance, respectively. Furthermore, negative effects of shelter reduction increased with fish body size. Thus, changes in habitat structure may even influence the size selection gradients.
4. Shelter availability is an easily measured variable, possibly affecting the population demographics and long-term evolutionary processes, and is therefore a key habitat factor to be considered in stream restoration and habitat classification.