Restoration of the Kissimmee River: A Conceptual Model of Past and Present Fish Communities and Its Consequences for Evaluating Restoration Success



Efforts to restore fish communities of the Kissimmee River will require carefully defined criteria for assessing success. A goal of regaining communities mirroring those in the historical river may not be an appropriate target because the ecological conditions of the river before channelization are poorly known. The Kissimmee River is in a biogeographic region historically low in fish diversity, and no comparable rivers in that region remain substantially unaltered by human activity to permit their use as reference sites indicative of conditions in the Kissimmee before channelization. I propose alternative criteria for assessing restoration success emphasizing expectations for ecosystem function in similar floodplain rivers. Assessing ecosystem function will be less simple than assessing criteria such as fish condition or density of selected species. But criteria based solely on fish-population characteristics cannot be justified quantitatively. Information integrated from several levels of biotic organization (individuals, populations, communities, and systems) should be drawn upon in making conclusions about restoration success. I develop a conceptual model to outline aspects of ecosystem function that could serve as a basis for evaluation of the restoration of fish communities of the Kissimmee River. The model focuses on the dynamics of the flux of floodplain-channel nutrients and the movement of larvae, juvenile, and adult fishes and macroinvertebrates. The present community may be dominated more by species tolerant of low-oxygen conditions, such as gar and bowfin, than the restored community will be. I propose that nest sites may be the limiting recruitment success of substrate spawning species in the channelized river and that these species, including sunfish and large-mouth bass, will increase in abundance after restoration. Also, species relying on floodplain habitats, including sun-fish species, darters, and some minnows, may also increase in frequency with restoration of floodplain-channel hydro-logical conditions and habitats. The observation that no species are known to have disappeared from the Kissimmee River, and its relatively simple community structure compared to rivers of comparable size elsewhere, are encouraging for prospects of successful restoration.