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Growth, fecundity, and recruitment responses of stunted brook trout populations to density reduction Hall, Donald Lincoln


Stunting is widespread among brook trout Salvelinus fontinalis populations in high alpine lakes in the eastern Sierra Nevada, California. Due to their small size and poor condition, stunted brook trout are undesirable as sport fish. In the same area, a few lakes contain large brook trout. Population density was the primary difference between lakes with different sized fish. I hypothesized that in lakes with large fish the food ration per individual was sufficient and that in lakes with stunted fish the food ration was the limiting factor. I carried out removal experiments on eight brook trout populations to test the hypothesis (1) that fish size is inversely related to population density, and by that evaluate density reduction as a means of improving growth in stunted brook trout. I considered seven additional hypotheses regarding the relationships between brook trout population density and growth, fecundity, and recruitment: (2) growth response is proportional to density reduction; (3) growth response is inversely proportional to pre-reduction density; (4) growth responses of juvenile and senescent fish are less affected by density reductions than mature, reproductively active fish; (5) growth response to density reduction is inversely proportional to lake elevation; (6) fish size is proportional to angling pressure; (7) fecundity response is proportional to the reduction in population density; and (8) recruitment response is inversely related to density. I used gillnets to simultaneously remove part of the population and estimate population size through catch depletion methods that allow variable catchability. Catchability varied with lake size and with abundance, increasing as population abundance declined. Increased catchability can be explained by behavioral responses. I measured and aged 16000+ brook trout from 71 lakes, 9800+ from the eight experimental lakes. I validated annual structures on otoliths using a fluorochrome mark. For the experimental lakes, I back-calculated previous population sizes using estimates of number at age in 1989, catch at age in 1987-1988, and survival rates at age estimated from catch data collected in 1987-1989. I converted population estimates into density estimates of fish and biomass per lake surface area and volume. I tested hypothesis 1 by using survey data from 61 populations and by experimentally manipulating density in eight populations. The survey data suggested that size differences between populations of brook trout are a function of population density. Results from the eight removal experiments showed that fish size was inversely related to population density, though the increases in fish size were minor. The relationship between change in length and weight was roughly proportional to the change in density (hypothesis 2). Hypothesis 3 suggested differences in the severity of stunting in alpine lakes, and that the growth response of severely stunted populations would be more pronounced than the response of less stunted fish in lower density populations. The result was opposite; the growth response in lower density populations was greater than the response in higher density populations, suggesting that the growth response may have been proportional to the pre-reduction density. Hypothesis 4 suggested that the growth response for juvenile brook trout would be less than that for the pre-senescent adult population. The results refuted the juvenile portion of hypothesis 4: response for juveniles was greater than the response of the adults, perhaps because of greater recuperative abilities in young fish. The data supported the hypothesis that the growth response would be diminished in older fish. There was no relationship between elevation and growth response (hypothesis 5). Sport fishing had little effect on the growth of brook trout populations (hypothesis 6). Heavily fished populations were also stunted. Stunted brook trout had fecundities similar to non-stunted brook trout of the same size (hypothesis 7). Individual fecundity did increase in response to density reduction, but no more than would be expected from the increase in size. In several populations mean absolute fecundity decreased with age. Ovary weight was maintained by an apparent increase in mean egg size in older fish. The recruitment response varied between lakes (hypothesis 8). Recruitment did increase, likely in response to reduced cannibalism or competition, but I also found recruitment failure at the highest levels of density reduction. Strong cohorts were produced by increased juvenile survival rather than increased population fecundity, since population fecundity had decreased due to removal of most of the adult population. In one lake with almost no recruitment, densities remained low and fish weight doubled. For density reduction to be an effective means of increasing fish size, recruitment must be inhibited.

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