Benefitting from reduced harvesting and an end to culling, many marine mammals are now recovering from past overexploitation. These recoveries represent important conservation successes but present a serious conservation problem when the recovering mammals are predators of species of conservation concern. Here, we examine the role of predation by recovering grey seals (Halichoerus grypus) in the near-extinction of a unique skate population in the southern Gulf of St. Lawrence (sGSL) in Atlantic Canada. Winter skate (Leucoraja ocellata) in the sGSL are distinct from winter skate elsewhere and may represent an endemic species. Their adult abundance has declined by 98% since 1980, and these skates are now detectable in only a small fraction of their former range. Population modeling indicates that the ongoing collapse of this population is due to increases in the natural mortality of adults. Based on model projections, this population would be extinct by mid-century if its current rate of productivity were to persist. A second population model incorporated predation by grey seals. Model estimates of skate consumption by seals were consistent with historical and recent estimates of the contribution of skates to grey seal diets. The estimated consumption accounted for the increases in the natural mortality of adult skates. A Type III functional response for grey seals preying on winter skate emerged from the model results. This indicates that, when skate abundance is very low, grey seals are expected to switch to alternate prey, resulting in declines in the mortality of skates due to predation. Consequently, contrary to projections at current productivity, winter skate are expected to be trapped at very low abundance in a “predator pit” instead of declining to extinction. Nonetheless, extinction risk would remain very high at the very small population size in the predator pit. Our results emphasize the need for an ecosystem-based approach to the management of living resources in this ecosystem.
- ecosystem-based fisheries management
- extinction risk
- natural mortality
- predator pit
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