, Volume 5, Issue 2, pp 159-182

Regional ecological variability and impact of the maritime fur trade on nearshore ecosystems in southern Haida Gwaii (British Columbia, Canada): evidence from stable isotope analysis of rockfish (Sebastes spp.) bone collagen

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Abstract

The maritime fur trade (1785–1840s) led to the local extinction of sea otters (Enhydra lutris) in many parts of the northeast Pacific. On the basis of studies of extant sea otter populations, it has been established that they have a disproportionate effect on nearshore ecosystems by limiting sea urchin abundance and facilitating the establishment of nearshore kelp forests; in the absence of sea otters, a local reduction in kelp-derived carbon is therefore expected. We measured the isotopic composition (δ13C and δ15N) of rockfish (Sebastes spp.) bone collagen from late Holocene archaeological sites in southern Haida Gwaii, BC, Canada, using δ13C as a proxy for kelp-derived carbon in the diet and δ15N as a proxy for trophic position. We observed significant spatial variability in rockfish kelp-derived carbon (δ13C), but not trophic level (δ15N). Kelp-derived carbon varied largely as a function of site characteristics (wave exposure), suggesting that local oceanographic conditions are important factors with respect to consumer tissue isotopic compositions. Kelp-derived carbon decreased in post-European contact rockfish relative to pre-European contact rockfish, likely as a result of the reduction of kelp forests associated with the local extirpation of sea otters. Although we detected a reduction in kelp-derived carbon in rockfish diets, we found no shift in trophic level at sites occupied following the maritime fur trade. This implies a shift in local ecosystems, and particularly in carbon sources, following the maritime fur trade, likely due to a trophic cascade resulting from the local extirpation of sea otters. Stability in rockfish trophic levels, however, implies that rockfish continued to feed at similar trophic levels, consuming prey with similar nitrogen isotopic compositions.