Estimating the Potential Impacts of Large Mesopredators on Benthic ResourcesPublished online on 3rd July 2012
Estimating the Potential Impacts of Large Mesopredators on Benthic Resources: Integrative Assessment of Spotted Eagle Ray Foraging Ecology in Bermuda
Ajemian MJ, Powers SP, Murdoch TJT
Declines of large sharks and subsequent release of elasmobranch mesopredators (smaller sharks and rays) may pose problems for marine fisheries management as some mesopredators consume exploitable shellfish species. The spotted eagle ray (Aetobatus narinari) is the most abundant inshore elasmobranch in subtropical Bermuda, but its predatory role remains unexamined despite suspected abundance increases and its hypothesized specialization for mollusks. We utilized a combination of acoustic telemetry, benthic invertebrate sampling, gut content analysis and manipulative experiments to assess the impact of spotted eagle rays on Bermudian shellfish resources. Residency and distribution of adult spotted eagle rays was monitored over two consecutive summers in Harrington Sound (HS), an enclosed inshore lagoon that has historically supported multiple recreational and commercial shellfish species. Telemetered rays exhibited variable fidelity (depending on sex) to HS, though generally selected regions that supported relatively high densities of potential mollusk prey. Gut content analysis from rays collected in HS revealed a diet of mainly bivalves and a few gastropods, with calico clam (Macrocallista maculata) representing the most important prey item. Manipulative field and mesocosm experiments with calico clams suggested that rays selected prey patches based on density, though there was no evidence of rays depleting clam patches to extirpation. Overall, spotted eagle rays had modest impacts on local shellfish populations at current population levels, suggesting a reduced role in transmitting cascading effects from apex predator loss. However, due to the strong degree of coupling between rays and multiple protected mollusks in HS, ecosystem-based management that accounts for ray predation should be adopted.
PLoS ONE 7(7): e40227. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0040227