Peipoch, M., and H.M. Valett. 2019. River Research and Applications, early online access.
Positive correlation between trout abundance and dissolved metal concentrations along the Upper Clark Fork River (UCFR; Montana, USA) have forced restoration practitioners to seek underlying causes of reduced fish density beyond heavy metal contamination. Throughout the river, nutrient enrichment and summer algal blooms may be hindering full recovery of trout populations. In this study, we evaluated the community structure and metal body burdens of benthic invertebrates and characterized existing trophic linkages between brown trout and dominant invertebrate taxa before and during summer algal blooms in a downstream reach of the UCFR where fish densities are low (20–30 trout/km), and where metal contamination is relevant but minimal compared with upstream. In spring, estimated invertebrate abundance was 1,727 ± 217 individuals/m2 and dominated by Ephemerellidae and Baetidae families. During summer algal bloom, invertebrate abundance increased 15‐fold (20,580 ± 3,510 individuals/m2) mostly due to greater abundance of Chironomidae, Hydropsychidae, and Simuliidae. Copper body burdens (130 ± 42 ppm) were higher than any other heavy metal regardless of season, but detectable concentrations of arsenic, cadmium, and lead were also found. A Bayesian mixing model combining metal burdens and stable isotopes showed that in the spring, trout of average size (355 ± 65 g) relied mostly on epibenthic taxa (Ephemerellidae and Hydropsychidae), contrasting with small (<100 g) and large (>400 g) trout relying heavily on Baetidae, a major component of invertebrate drift. Foraging segregation related to trout size did not occur during summer algal blooms, which may reflect increasing influence of benthic algal proliferation or indicate the indiscriminate use of pool habitats as thermal refugia over summer conditions by trout of different ages.