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Emil Aputsiaq Flindt Christensen:
Living on the edge: Ecology and physiology of European perch Perca fluviatilis in brackish water

Date: 14-07-2018    Supervisor: John Fleng Steffensen

Our knowledge about stenohaline freshwater fish living on the edge of their maximum salinity tolerance in estuaries and coastal areas is currently limited. The present PhD research project therefore aimed to describe the ecology and experimentally determine physiological responses to salinity of European perch (Perca fluviatilis) in brackish water. A field survey was conducted to elucidate the physical and chemical environment, migratory behavior, and determine population dynamics of a European perch population in the western Baltic Sea. Laboratory experiments determined the maximum salinity tolerance and the effect of salinity on swimming performance and metabolism, in relation to origin habitat salinity. The field survey showed that European perch in the western Baltic Sea live at salinities from 0 to 22. Despite this, the population exhibited a high growth rate and a large maximum size. The maximum salinity tolerance was substantially higher for fish originating from brackish water (17.5) compared to fish from fresh water (10-12.5). Brackish water European perch possessed the ability to both hyper- and hypoosmoregulate, in contrast to the fresh water European perch, which could only hyperosmoregulate. Furthermore, brackish water reduced the critical swimming speed in fresh water European perch, while it remained unaffected in brackish water European perch. Salinity had no measurable effect on metabolism in any of the fish. The results showed that European perch thrive in the western Baltic Sea, despite living on the edge of their salinity tolerance. They also revealed intraspecific plasticity in the maximum salinity tolerance as well as swimming capacity in relation to salinity, indicating an emerging speciation. This raises conservation issues on brackish water European perch. It is concluded that the high growth rates of brackish water European perch probably is due to low inter-specific competition and high food availability in estuaries and coastal areas, and not the energetic cost of osmoregulation. Brackish water European perch in the western Baltic Sea ought to be managed carefully to avoid local extinction.