Brackish Marsh Zones as a Waterfowl Habitat Resource in Submerged Aquatic Vegetation Beds in the Northern Gulf of Mexico

Submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) beds are shallow coastal habitats that are increasingly exposed to the effects of sea-level rise (SLR). In the northern Gulf of Mexico (nGoM), an area especially vulnerable to SLR, the abundance and distribution of SAV food resources (seeds, rhizomes, and tissue) can influence the carrying capacity of coastal marshes to support wintering waterfowl. Despite the known importance of SAV little is known about their distribution across coastal landscapes and salinity zones or how they may be impacted by SLR. We estimated SAV cover and seed biomass in coastal marshes from Texas to Alabama from 1 June - 15 September 2013 to assess variation in SAV and seed resource distribution and abundance across the salinity gradient. Percent cover of SAV was similar among salinity zones (10%-20%) although patterns of distribution differed. Specifically, SAV occurred less frequently in saline zones, but when present the percent coverage was greater than in fresh, intermediate and brackish. Mean seed biomass varied greatly and did not differ significantly among salinity zones. However, when considering only seed species identified as waterfowl foods, the mean seed biomass was lower in saline zones (<0.5 g m-2) than fresh, intermediate, and brackish (>1.2 g m-2). Alteration of nGoM marshes due to SLR will likely shift the distribution and abundance of SAV resources, and these shifts may affect carrying capacity of coastal marshes for waterfowl and other associated species.

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