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Seal predation on salmon and forage fish schools as a function of tidal currents in the San Juan Islands, Washington, USA

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Abstract:

Tidal patterns in feeding behaviour are known in several upper trophic level predators. Although harbour seal (Phoca vitulina richardsi) movements between resting and foraging areas are often correlated with tidal phase, little is known about tidal influences on seal foraging because it is difficult to make direct observations of predation events. This study sought to determine whether harbour seals exhibit tidal patterns in their at-sea distribution, abundance, and foraging success and to discuss how changes in capture rates or prey types might affect the ability of an individual to meet its daily energy requirement. During 1995–97, seal abundance in the water during flooding tides was significantly greater than median daily abundance. Seals aggregated near a channel constriction. Salmon accounted for 50% and 87% of observed captures of single, large fish in 1996 and 1997, respectively. Predation on schooling fishes involved juvenile sandlance or herring. Large-fish captures were episodic (16.9% and 27.5% of observations with nonzero capture rates) and occurred more often on the incoming tide near constricted water flow. Median per capita capture rates were highest in currents during slower flooding (0.31 fish·seal–1 h–1). Surface attacks on forage fish schools were more common than large-fish captures (54.0% and 66.7% of observations with at least one attack on forage fish). Night-time and subsurface feeding were not assessed. Given what is known about seal food requirements, tidal differences in capture rates are predicted to have a significant impact on both the hunting strategy and energy intake of individuals. Results support the idea that interactions among tidal currents, topographic features, and fish play a role in structuring marine predator–prey dynamics.

Keywords: San Juan Islands; foraging behaviour; harbour seal (Phoca vitulina); herring (Clupea harengus); predator–prey interactions; salmon (Oncorhynchus); sandlance (Ammodytes hexapterus); tidal currents

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 321 Steinhaus Hall, Department of Ecology & Evolutionary Biology, University of California – Irvine, Irvine, CA 92697–2525, USA

Publication date: December 1, 2001

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