A pinboard by
Laura Bliss

Ph.D. Student, University of Manitoba


Protecting key forage fish (capelin) spawning areas can support seabird and marine mammal resilience

Capelin is a key forage fish species in the Northwest Atlantic that functions as the link between microscopic zooplankton and large predators such as Atlantic cod, marine mammals, and seabirds. Previous research indicates that when capelin populations crashed in the early 1990s, the crash severely impacted populations of associated predators, including cod. When Atlantic cod populations plummeted in 1992, northern cod fisheries were quickly closed by a moratorium, and Newfoundland suffered disproportionately compared to other areas in the North Atlantic. The cod fisheries collapse in July 1992 resulted in the largest layoff in Canadian history, over 30,000 fishers lost their livelihoods, hundreds of communities were negatively impacted, and Newfoundland underwent an enormous emigration. The Atlantic cod fisheries collapse also exposed the necessity for further research into the local marine ecosystem.

Capelin is the primary prey for many marine mammals, groundfish, and seabirds; therefore, top predators are directly impacted by capelin abundance and distribution. In the Northwest Atlantic, capelin commonly spawn at near-shore, intertidal locations; however, capelin have also been observed spawning at recently described deep-water (15-40 m) locations. These deep-water spawning sites can persistently attract high abundances of top predators, thus creating predator hotspots. These sites of deep-water capelin spawning sites, or predator hotspots, are critical feeding grounds for the persistence of many marine species.

Expanding the understanding of these predator hotspots is the impetus of this project. Although capelin spawn primarily near shore in Newfoundland regions, as climate change warms the oceans, capelin is predicted to shift from warmer beach spawning sites to cooler deep-water sites to ensure adequate offspring survival. Previous studies have linked deep-water capelin spawning sites with oceanographic features, primarily temperature and topographic features such as depth. I will use spatially-reference temperature and depth data in ArcGIS to predict and map the location of potential deep-water spawning sites, and thus potential predator hotspots. Understanding the specific characteristics of these hotspots can support the designation of marine protected areas to preserve capelin population resiliency, along with the predator populations that depend on capelin as their primary food source.


Puffins reveal contrasting relationships between forage fish and ocean climate in the North Pacific

Abstract: Long-term studies of predator food habits (i.e., ‘predator-based sampling’) are useful for identifying patterns of spatial and temporal variability of forage nekton in marine ecosystems. We investigated temporal changes in forage fish availability and relationships to ocean climate by analyzing diet composition of three puffin species (horned puffin Fratercula corniculata, tufted puffin Fratercula cirrhata, and rhinoceros auklet Cerorhinca monocerata) from five sites in the North Pacific from 1978–2012. Dominant forage species included squids and hexagrammids in the western Aleutians, gadids and Pacific sand lance (Ammodytes personatus) in the eastern Aleutians and western Gulf of Alaska (GoA), and sand lance and capelin (Mallotus villosus) in the northern and eastern GoA. Interannual fluctuations in forage availability dominated variability in the western Aleutians, whereas lower-frequency shifts in forage fish availability dominated elsewhere. We produced regional multivariate indicators of sand lance, capelin, and age-0 gadid availability by combining data across species and sites using Principal Component Analysis, and related these indices to environmental factors including sea level pressure (SPL), winds, and sea surface temperature (SST). There was coherence in the availability of sand lance and capelin across the study area. Sand lance availability increased linearly with environmental conditions leading to warmer ocean temperatures, whereas capelin availability increased in a non-linear manner when environmental changes led to lower ocean temperatures. Long-term studies of puffin diet composition appear to be a promising tool for understanding the availability of these difficult-to-survey forage nekton in remote regions of the North Pacific.

Pub.: 01 Dec '16, Pinned: 29 Jun '17

Spatial and temporal changes in the Barents Sea pelagic compartment during the recent warming

Abstract: Publication date: Available online 11 January 2017 Source:Progress in Oceanography Author(s): Elena Eriksen, Hein Rune Skjoldal, Harald Gjøsæter, Raul Primicerio The Barents Sea has experienced substantial warming over the last few decades with expansion of relatively warm Atlantic water and reduction in sea ice. Based on a review of relevant literature and additional analyses, we report changes in the pelagic compartment associated with this warming using data from autumn surveys (acoustic capelin, 0-group fish, and ecosystem surveys). We estimated biomass for 25 components of the pelagic community, including macroplankton, 0-group fish, and juvenile and adult pelagic fish, were examined for spatial and temporal variation over the period 1993-2013. The estimated total biomass of the investigated pelagic compartment, not including mesozooplankton, ranged between about 6 and 30 million tonnes wet weight with an average of 17 million tonnes over the 21-years period. Krill was the dominant biomass component (63%), whereas pelagic fish (capelin, polar cod and herring) made up 26% and 0-group fish 11% of the biomass on average. The spatial distribution of biomass showed a broad-scale pattern reflecting differences in distribution of the main pelagic fishes (capelin in the north, polar cod in the east, and herring in the south) and transport of krill and 0-group fish with the Atlantic water flowing into the southern Barents Sea. Dividing the Barents Sea into six regions, the highest average biomass values were found in the Southwestern and South-Central subareas (about 4 million tonnes in each), with krill as the main component. Biomass was also high in the North-Central subarea (about 3 million tonnes) where capelin was the major contributor. The total estimated biomass of the pelagic compartment remained relatively stable during each of two main periods (before and after 2004), but increased by a factor of two from around 11 million tonnes in the first to around 23 million tonnes in the last period. The pronounced increase reflected the warming between the relatively cold 1990s and the warmer 2000s and was driven mainly by an increase in krill due presumably to increased advection. Variable recruitment of fish had a strong influence on the variation in pelagic biomass, first as 0-group fish (including demersal species such as cod and haddock) and subsequently over the next years manifested as strong or weak year classes of dominant pelagic species. Associated with the warming there was also a northern or eastern extension of the distribution of several components although the broad-scale geographical pattern of biomass distribution remained similar between the first and the last parts of the investigated period. The capelin stock, a dominant species with a substantial contribution to total biomass, experienced two collapses followed by recoveries in the 1990s and 2000s. The apparent stability in total biomass in each of the two periods (before and after 2004) reflected compensating and dampening mechanisms. In the first period, krill showed an inverse relationship with capelin, increasing when the capelin stock was low. In the second period, other fishes including juvenile herring, polar cod and blue whiting increased to fill the ‘void’ of the low capelin stock. The syntheses reported here provides a basis for modelling some of the key players and dominating processes and drivers of change in the ecosystem.

Pub.: 14 Jan '17, Pinned: 29 Jun '17

Temporal dynamics of top predators interactions in the Barents Sea.

Abstract: The Barents Sea system is often depicted as a simple food web in terms of number of dominant feeding links. The most conspicuous feeding link is between the Northeast Arctic cod Gadus morhua, the world's largest cod stock which is presently at a historical high level, and capelin Mallotus villosus. The system also holds diverse seabird and marine mammal communities. Previous diet studies may suggest that these top predators (cod, bird and sea mammals) compete for food particularly with respect to pelagic fish such as capelin and juvenile herring (Clupea harengus), and krill. In this paper we explored the diet of some Barents Sea top predators (cod, Black-legged kittiwake Rissa tridactyla, Common guillemot Uria aalge, and Minke whale Balaenoptera acutorostrata). We developed a GAM modelling approach to analyse the temporal variation diet composition within and between predators, to explore intra- and inter-specific interactions. The GAM models demonstrated that the seabird diet is temperature dependent while the diet of Minke whale and cod is prey dependent; Minke whale and cod diets depend on the abundance of herring and capelin, respectively. There was significant diet overlap between cod and Minke whale, and between kittiwake and guillemot. In general, the diet overlap between predators increased with changes in herring and krill abundances. The diet overlap models developed in this study may help to identify inter-specific interactions and their dynamics that potentially affect the stocks targeted by fisheries.

Pub.: 05 Nov '14, Pinned: 29 Jun '17

Dynamic oceanography determines fine scale foraging behavior of Masked Boobies in the Gulf of Mexico.

Abstract: During breeding, foraging marine birds are under biological, geographic, and temporal constraints. These contraints require foraging birds to efficiently process environmental cues derived from physical habitat features that occur at nested spatial scales. Mesoscale oceanography in particular may change rapidly within and between breeding seasons, and findings from well-studied systems that relate oceanography to seabird foraging may transfer poorly to regions with substantially different oceanographic conditions. Our objective was to examine foraging behavior of a pan-tropical seabird, the Masked Booby (Sula dactylatra), in the understudied Caribbean province, a moderately productive region driven by highly dynamic currents and fronts. We tracked 135 individuals with GPS units during May 2013, November 2013, and December 2014 at a regionally important breeding colony in the southern Gulf of Mexico. We measured foraging behavior using characteristics of foraging trips and used area restricted search as a proxy for foraging events. Among individual attributes, nest stage contributed to differences in foraging behavior whereas sex did not. Birds searched for prey at nested hierarchical scales ranging from 200 m-35 km. Large-scale coastal and shelf-slope fronts shifted position between sampling periods and overlapped geographically with overall foraging locations. At small scales (at the prey patch level), the specific relationship between environmental variables and foraging behavior was highly variable among individuals but general patterns emerged. Sea surface height anomaly and velocity of water were the strongest predictors of area restricted search behavior in random forest models, a finding that is consistent with the characterization of the Gulf of Mexico as an energetic system strongly influenced by currents and eddies. Our data may be combined with tracking efforts in the Caribbean province and across tropical regions to advance understanding of seabird sensing of the environment and serve as a baseline for anthropogenic based threats such as development, pollution, and commercial fisheries.

Pub.: 03 Jun '17, Pinned: 29 Jun '17

Effects of gill-net fishing on marine birds in a biological hotspot in the northwest Atlantic.

Abstract: Marine biological hotspots, or areas where high abundances of species overlap in space and time, are ecologically important areas because energy flow through marine food webs, a key ecosystem process, is maximized in these areas. I investigated whether top predators aggregated at persistent spawning sites of a key forage fish species, capelin (Mallotus villosus), on the NE coast of Newfoundland during July and August 2000-2003. By examining the distributional patterns of top predators through ship-based surveys at multiple spatial and temporal scales, I found that the biomasses of birds-dominated by Common Murres (Uria aalge)-and mammals-dominated by whale species-were concentrated along the coast, with a biological hotspot forming near two persistent spawning sites of capelin in all years. The formation of this hotspot was well defined in space and time from middle of July to middle of August, likely coinciding with the spawning chronology of capelin. Within this hotspot, there was a high spatial and temporal overlap of Common Murres and gill nets set to capture Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua). This resulted in breeding murres becoming entangled in gill nets while feeding on spawning capelin. Despite an acknowledged uncertainty of bycatch mortality, estimates for the larger regional-scale area (1936-4973 murres/year; 0.2-0.6% of the breeding population) underestimated mortality relative to estimates within the hotspot (3053-14054 murres/year; 0.4-1.7%). Although fishing effort for Atlantic cod has declined substantially since the groundfish moratorium in 1992, chronic, unnatural, and additive mortality through bycatch continues in coastal Newfoundland. Restricted use of gill nets within this and other biological hotspots during the capelin spawning period appears to be a straightforward application of the "ecological and biologically significant area" management framework in Canada's Oceans Act. This protection would minimize murre bycatch and maintain ecosystem integrity.

Pub.: 26 Jul '07, Pinned: 27 Jun '17

Distribution of marine predator hotspots explained by persistent areas of prey

Abstract: Investigations of distributional and density patterns of marine predators often reveal areas where high abundances of one or many species overlap in space and time (‘biological hotspots’); however, mechanisms underlying hotspot formation are often unclear, leading to difficulties determining spatial and temporal boundaries of protected areas. On the northeast Newfoundland coast, I previously described annually persistent aggregations of a key forage fish species, capelin (Mallotus villosus): (1) two pre- and post-spawning staging areas in deep (>150 m) bathymetric channels, (2) a cluster of four persistently used demersal spawning sites (17–40 m), and (3) a coastal migratory route (<50 m). Through at-sea surveys repeated over 8 years (2000–2003, 2007, and 2009–2011), I show that the majority of predator hotspots identified were spatially associated with (i.e., within 10 km) these persistent capelin areas for breeding seabirds (common murre: 85.2 ± 4.6 %; northern gannet: 66.9 ± 6.6 %), overwintering seabirds (great and sooty shearwaters: 88.0 ± 6.9 %), and baleen whales (humpback, minke, and fin whales: 86.8 ± 8.6 %). Most predator hotspots were closer to the spawning (3.8–14.0 km) relative to the staging areas (13.1–27.6 km), especially for murres and shearwaters. Interspecific differences were attributed to variation in maximum dive depths and dietary preferences. Predators only aggregated within the spawning area, while capelin were spawning, suggesting that interannual variation in association with predator and capelin hotspots was attributed to variation in survey timing relative to capelin spawning. As these areas of persistent capelin are bound by static bathymetric and large-scale oceanographic features and can be delimited in time based on the capelin spawning period, they may be important candidate areas for protection.

Pub.: 18 Jul '13, Pinned: 27 Jun '17

Using seabird habitat modeling to inform marine spatial planning in central California's National Marine Sanctuaries.

Abstract: Understanding seabird habitat preferences is critical to future wildlife conservation and threat mitigation in California. The objective of this study was to investigate drivers of seabird habitat selection within the Gulf of the Farallones and Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuaries to identify areas for targeted conservation planning. We used seabird abundance data collected by the Applied California Current Ecosystem Studies Program (ACCESS) from 2004-2011. We used zero-inflated negative binomial regression to model species abundance and distribution as a function of near surface ocean water properties, distances to geographic features and oceanographic climate indices to identify patterns in foraging habitat selection. We evaluated seasonal, inter-annual and species-specific variability of at-sea distributions for the five most abundant seabirds nesting on the Farallon Islands: western gull (Larus occidentalis), common murre (Uria aalge), Cassin's auklet (Ptychorampus aleuticus), rhinoceros auklet (Cerorhinca monocerata) and Brandt's cormorant (Phalacrocorax penicillatus). The waters in the vicinity of Cordell Bank and the continental shelf east of the Farallon Islands emerged as persistent and highly selected foraging areas across all species. Further, we conducted a spatial prioritization exercise to optimize seabird conservation areas with and without considering impacts of current human activities. We explored three conservation scenarios where 10, 30 and 50 percent of highly selected, species-specific foraging areas would be conserved. We compared and contrasted results in relation to existing marine protected areas (MPAs) and the future alternative energy footprint identified by the California Ocean Uses Atlas. Our results show that the majority of highly selected seabird habitat lies outside of state MPAs where threats from shipping, oil spills, and offshore energy development remain. This analysis accentuates the need for innovative marine spatial planning efforts and provides a foundation on which to build more comprehensive zoning and management in California's National Marine Sanctuaries.

Pub.: 24 Aug '13, Pinned: 27 Jun '17