Forage fish control population dynamics of North Sea whiting Merlangius merlangus
Predator populations are often affected by the abundance of their prey, but pronounced effects on predatory fish have mainly been demonstrated in ecosystems where a key predator depends largely on one key prey species. The North Sea food web has a comparatively high level of complexity with a high diversity of forage fish, and hence strong effects are less likely to occur. However, in the early 2000s within large parts of the North Sea, several forage fish stocks simultaneously suffered from successive years of recruitment failure together with decreasing stock abundances. Whiting Merlangius merlangus is a major fish predator in the North Sea ecosystem and is known to be almost exclusively piscivorous. We hypothesised that shortages in forage fish should lead to negative effects on growth or condition of a predator that relies on a few dominant prey fish species. In our study, we combined 6 different North Sea data sets on abundance of forage fish and length-at-age, condition and stomach contents of M. merlangus to analyse contrasting periods with high and low forage fish availability. We found a simultaneous decrease in forage fish availability and M. merlangus length-at-age in the period from 2000−2007 and a subsequent parallel increase in prey abundance and length-at-age after 2007. In the period of low forage fish availability, mean stomach content mass was on average 60% less than in the reference periods. Additionally, a bioenergetics calculation revealed that even smaller differences in the stomach contents than those observed would have been sufficient to explain the observed differences in length-at-age. Our findings emphasize the need to incorporate predator− prey interactions in assessment models and management strategies.