Are Melting Glaciers Putting Arctic Fish at Risk?

Shifts in Capelin Fish Feeding Ecology

An important Arctic fish might be in trouble. A recent study in Greenland examines changes in the feeding ecology of capelin, a small forage fish in the smelt family. Melting glaciers are affecting its diet, and this change in diet can heavily influence its growth and reproduction. This could spell trouble for the other animals that eat capelin.

Found in the Arctic, Capelin are an important food source for marine mammals such as whales and seals. Atlantic cod, a major commercial fish species, are one of its major predators. Atlantic puffin also like to feed on them, along with other sea birds.

A puffin enjoying a mouthful of what appears to be capelin (Source: Lawrence OP/Flickr).

Capelin enjoy feeding on plankton, microorganisms that float in the sea and on freshwater. Krill, small shrimp-like crustacean, are also crucial in the diet. Capelin seem to migrate less than other species, making them extremely dependent on the food that’s readily available to them. Any major changes in food availability can ripple through the Arctic food web.

The Godthåbsfjord in West Greenland was sampled at a number of sites, all the way from the mouth where it opens to the ocean to the furthest inland basin. Capelin were sampled by the researchers during the months of May and August, when increased meltwater from summer heating flows into the fjord. The fish were then divided into 2-cm interval size groups, assessing for differences in age. Researchers carefully dissected the stomachs and intestines, preserving them so that they could later examine their contents to determine diets over different locations and times.

Lorenz Meire talks about the framework of the study in an interview with GlacierHub. Meire is a marine scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute for Science Research and one of the scientists behind this study. “By trawling in a sub-Arctic fjord impacted by glacial meltwater, we aimed to assess the change in capelin size distribution and its diet throughout the season,” he says. Meire adds that scientists tried to link diet with observed changes in zooplankton biomass and environmental conditions.

Three small capelin on tin foil (Source: Rodrigo Sala/Flickr).

What are some observed environmental changes?

Studies show a shift in abundance of krill from freshwater-influenced regions toward the oceans. We see similar shifts with large plankton. GlacierHub spoke with Kristine Engel Arendt, a marine biologist from the University of Copenhagen. Her research on plankton community structure is referenced in the study. She provides some insight on how runoff from the exit glacier and high up ice sheets affect the ecosystem ecology, looking particularly at smaller plankton species.

Arendt told GlacierHub that the fjord typically experiences a bloom of algae in the spring, which is a food source for plankton. The addition of freshwater from the late summer runoff initiates a second bloom of algae, driven by an upwelling of nutrients. “The marine food web is closely linked to the energy source from the algae bloom, and therefore zooplankton species that can utilize food over the entire summer period are favored,” she says. These smaller species of plankton benefit from the nutrients. They use this extra algae bloom during the summer to grow and reproduce. This observation indicates an abundance of smaller plankton at the inner basin region in August. Stomach examinations show a clear increase of small plankton in the diet of fish from this area of the fjord.

Drifting Ice, Godthåbsfjord, West Greenland (Source: Lorenz Meire).

Arendt points out that climate change effects such as melting glaciers are not always negative. We see that this inflow of freshwater is in fact beneficial to these smaller plankton. But how might this change affect capelin?

A Disadvantage to Younger Capelin

It’s important to look at the migration and reproductive pattern of capelin to understand the impacts. Maturing adult capelin spawn from April to June in the fjord, from the inner basin to near-coastal regions. Studies show that all male capelin and some females die off with connection to spawning. Researchers can then presume that the May sample will consist of both mature and immature capelin, and August will be dominated by young capelin. This is reflected in the findings of the study.

The beautiful fjords of Greenland (Source: GlacierHub author Arley Titzler)

The quality of the available food sources must also be examined. It differs with plankton size. Larger plankton species are relatively richer in fat per unit of weight. This makes them more ideal for energy intake and growth than the smaller plankton species. Energy intake and growth is particularly critical for young capelin. Meire told GlacierHub, “If smaller copepods (plankton) become more abundant, they will form a more important food source for capelin. Though this can impact the energy transfer as small copepods in the diet cannot compensate for the absence of larger copepods and krill.”

Lack of the more favored species in the inner regions can negatively affect nutrition of capelin. Younger capelin here are at risk. They will need to feed on the larger, fat-rich plankton to receive enough nutrients to effectively grow and reproduce. This can greatly affect the Arctic food web.

Video of the Week: Comments from IPCC Chair on SR1.5

This week’s Video of the Week follows the recent release of the IPCC’s special report, SR1.5, on warming impacts of 1.5 degrees Celsius. This short but meaningful video features comments from head of IPCC Hoesung Lee, regarding the observable effects of climate change on societies and ecosystems. SR1.5 urges immediate global response to drastically reduce emissions that contribute to global warming, highlighting the importance of reaching global “net zero” emissions by 2050. The report also suggests strategies for mitigating pathways and transitioning into more sustainable human and environmental systems through adjustments in sectors such as energy, agriculture and infrastructure, to name a few.

Visit the IPCC website for the full report, which includes the Summary for Policymakers and the official press release from Incheon, Republic of Korea. Also, be sure to check out last week’s post on SR1.5 by GlacierHub editor Ben Orlove.

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