Over 6,110 ha of the commercial production salt ponds surrounding South San Francisco Bay, CA, have been decommissioned and reconnected to the bay, most as part of the largest wetlands restoration program in the western United States. These open water ponds are critical habitat for millions of birds annually and restoration program managers must determine the appropriate balance between retention of ponds versus re-conversion to tidal salt marsh, knowing that both are essential ecosystems for endangered bird species. Our study describes the ecological value of the new open water pond ecosystems as feeding habitats for birds. We used the oxygen rate of change method to determine ecosystem metabolic parameters from high resolution time-series of dissolved oxygen concentration. Areal gross primary production (8.17 g O2 m−2 d−1) was roughly double the world's most productive estuaries. High rates of phytoplankton photosynthesis were balanced by equally high rates of community respiration (8.25 g O2 m−2 d−1). Metabolic equilibrium was delicately poised: sharp irradiance and temperature shifts triggered short term photosynthesis reduction resulting in oxygen depletion. We converted net primary production (NPP) into potential carrying capacity of the forage biota that support targeted pond waterbirds. NPP was processed through both a pelagic food web, resulting in forage biota for piscivorous birds and a benthic food web, resulting in forage biota for shorebirds and diving benthivores. Both food webs included efficient algal-based and inefficient detrital trophic pathways. The result of all primary production being routed through simple food webs was high potential forage production and energy supply to waterbirds, equivalent to 11–163 million planktivorous fish or 19–78 billion small estuarine clams within the 330-ha pond between May and October. Food quantity does not necessarily equal quality and these systems have the potential to produce toxic or inedible algae. Our study provides the first measurement of primary production in the open water ponds of San Francisco Bay and presents a novel approach for transforming primary production into forage production as a metric of an ecosystem's energetic carrying capacity.
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Vol. 28 • No. 3