Predator–prey analysis of striped bass and Atlantic menhaden in upper Chesapeake Bay
Between 1997 and 2000, an outbreak of skin lesions and observations of emaciated striped bass, Morone saxatilis (Walbaum), in upper Chesapeake Bay were attributed to a perceived shortage of its main prey, Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus Latrobe. Abundance estimates, Atlantic menhaden consumption per recruit analysis (modified yield-per-recruit), bioenergetics analysis and predator–prey theory were combined to explore whether an imbalance between striped bass and Atlantic menhaden in upper Chesapeake Bay was plausible. Reduced fishing mortality and higher size limits that underpinned the effort to restore striped bass during the 1980s and 1990s lead to more abundant and larger striped bass in upper Chesapeake Bay, increasing predatory demand for forage-sized Atlantic menhaden, the abundance of which declined to a historic low. Nominal losses of age 0–2 Atlantic menhaden to harvest and potential striped bass predation exceeded supply after 1998. The outbreak of lesions in upper Chesapeake Bay striped bass coincided with increased variation in weight-at-length, decreased length-at-age, and decreased presence of Atlantic menhaden in diets. Decreased attack success, inferred from a 97% decline in ratios of forage-sized Atlantic menhaden to striped bass between 1983 and 1998, would have expected to have been followed by a deterioration of striped bass nutritional state. Transmission of disease would have been aided by high density of striped bass in poor nutritional condition residing in degraded habitat (Chesapeake Bay was the most hypoxic estuary in the mid-Atlantic region in the late 1990s). These problems suggest that striped bass exceeded their carrying capacity in Chesapeake Bay during the late 1990s.
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