Trophic role of small cetaceans and seals in Irish waters
University College Cork
Understanding the role of marine mammals in specific ecosystems and their interactions with fisheries involves, inter alia, an understanding of their diet and dietary requirements. In this thesis, the foraging ecology of seven marine mammal species that regularly occur in Irish waters was investigated by reconstructing diet using hard parts from digestive tracts and scats. Of the species examined, two (striped and Atlantic white-sided dolphin) can be considered offshore species or species inhabiting neritic waters, while five others usually inhabit more coastal areas (white-beaked dolphin, harbour porpoise, harbour seal and grey seal); the last species studied was the bottlenose dolphin whose population structure is more complex, with coastal and offshore populations. A total of 13,028 prey items from at least 81 different species (62 fish species, 14 cephalopods, four crustaceans, and a tunicate) were identified. 28% of the fish species were identified using bones other than otoliths, highlighting the importance of using all identifiable structures to reconstruct diet. Individually, each species of marine mammal presented a high diversity of prey taxa, but the locally abundant Trisopterus spp. were found to be the most important prey item for all species, indicating that Trisopterus spp. is probably a key species in understanding the role of these predators in Irish waters. In the coastal marine mammals, other Gadiformes species (haddock, pollack, saithe, whiting) also contributed substantially to the diet; in contrast, in pelagic or less coastal marine mammals, prey was largely comprised of planktivorous fish, such as Atlantic mackerel, horse mackerel, blue whiting, and mesopelagic prey. Striped dolphins and Atlantic white-sided dolphins are offshore small cetaceans foraging in neritic waters. Differences between the diet of striped dolphins collected in drift nets targeting tuna and stranded on Irish coasts showed a complex foraging behaviour; the diet information shows that although this dolphin forages mainly in oceanic waters it may occasionally forage on the continental shelf, feeding on available prey. The Atlantic white-sided dolphin diet showed that this species prefers to feed over the continental edge, where planktivorous fish are abundant. Some resource partitioning was found in bottlenose dolphins in Irish waters consistent with previous genetic and stable isotope analysis studies. Bottlenose dolphins in Irish waters appears to be generalist feeders consuming more than 30 prey species, however most of the diet comprised a few locally abundant species, especially gadoid fish including haddock/pollack/saithe group and Trisopterus spp., but the contribution of Atlantic hake, conger eels and the pelagic planktivorous horse mackerel were also important. Stomach content information suggests that three different feeding behaviours might occur in bottlenose dolphin populations in Irish waters; firstly a coastal behaviour, with animals feeding on prey that mainly inhabit areas close to the coast; secondly an offshore behaviour where dolphins feed on offshore species such as squid or mesopelagic fish; and a third more complex behaviour that involves movements over the continental shelf and close to the shelf edge. The other three coastal marine mammal species (harbour porpoise, harbour seal and grey seal) were found to be feeding on similar prey and competition for food resources among these sympatric species might occur. Both species of seals were found to have a high overlap (more than 80%) in their diet composition, but while grey seals feed on large fish (>110mm), harbour seals feed mostly on smaller fish (<110mm), suggesting some spatial segregation in foraging. Harbour porpoises and grey seals are potentially competing for the same food resource but some differences in prey species were found and some habitat partitioning might occur. Direct interaction (by catch) between dolphins and fisheries was detected in all species. Most of the prey found in the stomach contents from both stranded and by catch dolphins were smaller sizes than those targeted by commercial fisheries. In fact, the total annual food consumption of the species studied was found to be very small (225,160 tonnes) in comparison to fishery landings for the same area (~2 million tonnes). However, marine mammal species might be indirectly interacting with fisheries, removing forage fish. Incorporating the dietary information obtained from the four coastal species, an ECOPATH food web model was established for the Irish Sea, based on data from 2004. Five trophic levels were found, with bottlenose dolphins and grey and harbour seals occurring at the highest trophic level. A comparison with a previous model based on 1973 data suggests that while the overall Irish Sea ecosystem appears to be “maturing”, some indices indicate that the 2004 fishery was less efficient and was targeting fish at higher trophic levels than in 1973, which is reflected in the mean trophic level of the catch. Depletion or substantial decrease of some of the Irish Sea fish stocks has resulted in a significant decline in landings in this area. The integration of diet information in mass-balance models to construct ecosystem food-webs will help to understand the trophic role of these apex predators within the ecosystem.
Striped dolphin , Atlantic white-sided dolphin , White-beaked dolphin , Bottlenose dolphin , Harbour porpoise , Harbour seal , Grey seal , Trisopterus spp. , Fisheries , Irish waters , ECOPATH
Hernández-Milián, G. 2014. Trophic role of small cetaceans and seals in Irish waters. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.