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Estuarine fish populations are exposed to a variety of environmental conditions that cause both short-term variability and long-term trends in abundance. We analyzed an extensive data set for striped bass (Morone saxatilis) in the San Francisco Estuary to refine our understanding of how environmental variability influences recruitment. We examined the effects of environmental variability during early life stages on subsequent recruitment (age 3 yr), and the degree to which conditions in early life may have contributed to a long-term decline in abundance of adult striped bass in the San Francisco Estuary. Survival from egg to young-of-the-year varied strongly with freshwater flow; this effect apparently occurred within the first week or two of life, a time period that encompasses transport of eggs and larvae from the rivers to rearing areas and the onset of feeding. The rate of freshwater flow to pumping facilities that export freshwater from the system had small or sporadic effects on survival during the first month or two of life. Although many young striped bass between ages 2 and 8 mo were entrained in export pumping facilities, the resulting high mortality was unrelated to total mortality rates determined from field data on young striped bass. This lack of effect was apparently due to strong density-dependent mortality occurring between ages 1 mo and 3 yr (Kimmerer et al. 2000). The available data do not support previously suggested relationships between recruitment and freshwater flow during early life, or between gross estimates of pesticide input and survival of early life stages. We used a simple life-cycle model to show that various combined factors could have led to a decline in adult abundance, particularly a large and increasing adult mortality, but that events early in life probably did not contribute substantially to the decline. These results demonstrate that several decades of monitoring data from numerous life stages are needed to distinguish among alternative hypotheses about environmental influences on populations of estuarine fish.

Original publication




Journal article



Publication Date





557 - 575