Advisor

Angela L. Strecker

Date of Award

8-6-2019

Document Type

Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.) in Earth, Environment, & Society

Department

Earth, Environment, & Society

Physical Description

1 online resource (xi, 191 pages)

Abstract

Mountain lakes are an iconic feature of the landscape in the Mountain West. They hold significant ecological and cultural value, and are important sentinels of environmental change. Despite their pristine image, these remote waterbodies are subjected to numerous anthropogenic stressors. Mountain lakes are naturally fishless systems, but historical fish stocking has led to major changes in mountain lake food web structure, including declines of resident amphibians, large-bodied zooplankton, and emergent insect populations. Atmospherically deposited contaminants, such as mercury, can accumulate in mountain lake food webs, leading to relatively high levels in the fish relative to the water. Managing for these stressors is difficult, because although fish stocking causes ecological problems, and mercury bioaccumulation poses human health risks, the cultural value of angling remains important.

The goal of this dissertation was to better understand the issues of fish stocking and mercury bioaccumulation in a socioecological context: from the importance of trophic dynamics for mercury bioaccumulation in mountain lake fish, to the implications fish stocking and mercury bioaccumulation for mountain lake management. In Chapter 2, I identified the ecological, limnological, and landscape-level indicators of mercury bioaccumulation in mountain lake food webs in order to inform better ecosystem management. In Chapter 3, I conducted an experiment to test if fatty acid stable isotopes can partition benthic and terrestrial prey sources in fish in a simplified mountain lake food web, in hopes of providing a more informative tool for future food web studies. In Chapter 4, I used intercept surveys to determine the public perceptions of mountain lake fisheries management in two national parks, and assess the risk mercury may pose to mountain lake anglers by determining fish consumption habits.

I determined that nearshore forest cover and fish diet were the best predictors of mercury concentrations in mountain lake fish, but that our understanding of the role of terrestrial prey subsidies for fish is constrained by limitations in current diet tracing methods. My experiment demonstrates that using stable isotopes of fatty acids is a promising approach to distinguishing between benthic and terrestrial diet sources, but that doing so effectively requires an in-depth understanding of physiological context specific to the ecosystem of interest. Lastly, through my surveys, I found that thousands of anglers regularly consume fish from mountain lakes, and that while most visitors have concerns about the ecological impacts of fish stocking, anglers support a conservation-based approach that balances ecological health with the cultural value of fish stocking.

This dissertation provides a unique set of tools that advance our understanding of food web dynamics and mercury bioaccumulation in mountain lakes, as well as the social value of these ecosystems. My results suggest that the most effective way to protect the health of mountain lakes and their visitors will be for managing agencies to collaborate with scientists and angling groups when making fisheries management decisions, and to invest in outreach about both the ecological and toxicological implications of fish stocking and mercury bioaccumulation in mountain lakes. The use of such socioecological research approaches is becoming progressively more important, as the threats of climate change and unstable regulatory protections for mountain ecosystems increase.

Persistent Identifier

https://archives.pdx.edu/ds/psu/29408

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