Change in habitat associations and geographic distribution of thorny skate (Amblyraja radiata) in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence: density-dependent habitat selection or response to environmental change?
We describe changes in the habitat associations and geographic distribution of thorny skate during their feeding season in the southern Gulf of St Lawrence, based on 32 yr of monitoring by a bottom-trawl survey. In the 1990s, geographic range contracted sharply and distribution shifted into a narrow band of warm deep waters. These changes appeared to reflect altered habitat selection by individual skates, rather than local depletion of the skates that had habitually occupied the vacated areas or a change in the timing of seasonal migrations. Changes in skate distribution coincided with a decline in skate biomass and a cooling of bottom waters. The contraction in the geographic range of skates appeared to be a density-dependent response, more closely linked to the decline in skate abundance than to the change in environmental conditions. The cause of the shift in habitat associations is less certain. An index of the distribution shift was more strongly correlated with skate biomass than with an index of temperature conditions, and the change in temperature associations is in the direction predicted by density-dependent bioenergetic considerations. However, the shift into deeper waters is into a depth zone where skate condition is relatively low, contrary to the expectation that fish should be concentrated in optimal habitat at low population size. On the other hand, while the shift into warm deep waters coincided with a cooling of waters at intermediate depths, distribution failed to shift back to the earlier pattern as these waters warmed in the late 1990s.