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- Dietary niche expansion of a kelp forest predator recovering from intense commercial exploitation
- Marine ecosystems are increasingly at risk from overexploitation and fisheries collapse. As managers implement recovery plans, shifts in species interactions may occur broadly with potential consequences for ecosystem structure and function. In kelp forests off San Nicolas Island, California, USA, we describe striking changes in size structure and life history traits (e.g., size at maturation and sex change) of a heavily fished, ecologically important predator, the California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher). These changes occurred in two phases: (1) after intense commercial fishery exploitation in the late 1990s and (2) following recovery in the late 2000s, nearly a decade after management intervention. Using gut contents and stable-isotope values of sheephead and their prey, we found evidence for a dietary niche expansion upon recovery of population size structure to include increased consumption of sea urchins and other mobile invertebrate grazers by larger sized fish. By examining historical diet data and a time series of benthic community composition, we conclude that changes in dietary niche breadth are more likely due to the recovery of size structure from fishing than major shifts in prey availability. Size-dependent predator-prey interactions may have ecosystem consequences and management measures that preserve or restore size structure, and therefore historical trophic roles of key predators, could be vital for maintaining kelp forest ecosystem health. © 2014 by the Ecological Society of America., Fish and Fisheries
- Hamilton, Newsome, Caselle
- Historical ecology and the conservation of large, hermaphroditic fishes in Pacific Coast kelp forest ecosystems
- The intensive commercial exploitation of California sheephead (Semicossyphus pulcher) has become a complex, multimillion-dollar industry. The fishery is of concern because of high harvest levels and potential indirect impacts of sheephead removals on the structure and function of kelp forest ecosystems. California sheephead are protogynous hermaphrodites that, as predators of sea urchins and other invertebrates, are critical components of kelp forest ecosystems in the northeast Pacific. Overfishing can trigger trophic cascades and widespread ecological dysfunction when other urchin predators are also lost from the system. Little is known about the ecology and abundance of sheephead before commercial exploitation. Lack of a historical perspective creates a gap for evaluating fisheries management measures and marine reserves that seek to rebuild sheephead populations to historical baseline conditions. We use population abundance and size structure data from the zooarchaeological record, in concert with isotopic data, to evaluate the long-term health and viability of sheephead fisheries in southern California. Our results indicate that the importance of sheephead to the diet of native Chumash people varied spatially across the Channel Islands, reflecting modern biogeographic patterns. Comparing ancient (~10,000 calibrated years before the present to 1825 CE) and modern samples, we observed variability and significant declines in the relative abundance of sheephead, reductions in size frequency distributions, and shifts in the dietary niche between ancient and modern collections. These results highlight how size-selective fishing can alter the ecological role of key predators and how zooarchaeological data can inform fisheries management by establishing historical baselines that aid future conservation.
- Braje, Rick, Szpak, Newsome, McCain, Elliott Smith, Glassow, Hamilton