Forests fuel fish growth in freshwater deltas
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Aquatic ecosystems are fuelled by biogeochemical inputs from surrounding lands and within-lake primary production. Disturbances that change these inputs may affect how aquatic ecosystems function and deliver services vital to humans. Here we test, using a forest cover gradient across eight separate catchments, whether disturbances that remove terrestrial biomass lower organic matter inputs into freshwater lakes, thereby reducing food web productivity. We focus on deltas formed at the stream-lake interface where terrestrial-derived particulate material is deposited. We find that organic matter export increases from more forested catchments, enhancing bacterial biomass. This transfers energy upwards through communities of heavier zooplankton, leading to a fourfold increase in weights of planktivorous young-of-the-year fish. At least 34% of fish biomass is supported by terrestrial primary production, increasing to 66% with greater forest cover. Habitat tracers confirm fish were closely associated with individual catchments, demonstrating that watershed protection and restoration increase biomass in critical life-stages of fish.
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