Research Article: Rethinking the influence of hydroelectric development on gene flow in a long-lived fish, the Lake Sturgeon Acipenser fulvescens

Date Published: March 22, 2017

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Craig A. McDougall, Amy B. Welsh, Thierry Gosselin, W. Gary Anderson, Patrick A. Nelson, Z. Daniel Deng.


Many hydroelectric dams have been in place for 50 – >100 years, which for most fish species means that enough generations have passed for fragmentation induced divergence to have accumulated. However, for long-lived species such as Lake Sturgeon, Acipenser fulvescens, it should be possible to discriminate between historical population structuring and contemporary gene flow and improve the broader understanding of anthropogenic influence. On the Winnipeg River, Manitoba, two hypotheses were tested: 1) Measureable quantities of former reservoir dwelling Lake Sturgeon now reside downstream of the Slave Falls Generating Station, and 2) genetically differentiated populations of Lake Sturgeon occur upstream and downstream, a result of historical structuring. Genetic methods based on ten microsatellite markers were employed, and simulations were conducted to provide context. With regards to contemporary upstream to downstream contributions, the inclusion of length-at-age data proved informative. Both pairwise relatedness and Bayesian clustering analysis substantiated that fast-growing outliers, apparently entrained after residing in the upstream reservoir for several years, accounted for ~15% of the Lake Sturgeon 525–750 mm fork length captured downstream. With regards to historical structuring, upstream and downstream populations were found to be differentiated (FST = 0.011, and 0.013–0.014 when fast-growing outliers were excluded), and heterozygosity metrics were higher for downstream versus upstream juveniles. Historical asymmetric (downstream) gene flow in the vicinity of the generating station was the most logical explanation for the observed genetic structuring. In this section of the Winnipeg River, construction of a major dam does not appear to have fragmented a previously panmictic Lake Sturgeon population, but alterations to habitat may be influencing upstream to downstream contributions in unexpected ways.

Partial Text

Deforestation, urbanization, hydroelectric dams, weirs, water diversions, and linear transport infrastructure have altered terrestrial and aquatic environments, leading to widespread habitat fragmentation and threatening biological diversity [1–5]. However, the consequences of these changes are not always obvious or consistent with expectations after the confounding influence of habitat loss is removed [6,7]. At the species level, population fragmentation results from the introduction of one or more barriers to volitional movement and/or effective dispersal, isolating portions of a group of individuals that previously interacted genetically; over time, lack of gene flow among isolated groups could result in increased rates of genetic drift, decreased genetic variability, inbreeding depression, and ultimately risk of population extinction [8–11].

In this study, the potential for historical population structure and contemporary inter-reservoir contributions of Lake Sturgeon in the vicinity of a major hydroelectric generating station was assessed using a combination of methods. With regards to contemporary downstream contribution analyses, biological data proved informative. Only small differences in growth rate were observed in the two zones upstream of the Slave Falls GS, despite a ten-fold difference in CPUE, but growth rates of Lake Sturgeon in both upstream zones far exceeded those of the majority of fish located in the riverine section located between Slave Falls and Scot Rapids (Zone DS). It was suspected that all fast-growing outliers were former upstream residents, but because there are areas >15 km downstream of the Slave Falls GS where juvenile Lake Sturgeon exhibit a rapid rate of growth [97], comparable or even higher than what was observed in the Slave Falls Reservoir during the current study, the possibility of upstream redistribution could not be discounted without genetic data.




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