Mortality of newly metamorphosed eastern oysters (Crassostrea virginica) in mesohaline Chesapeake Bay
Stocks of eastern oysters, Crassostrea virginica (Gmelin), in mesohaline Chesapeake Bay, USA, exhibit a high degree of inter-annual and spatial variability in recruitment. We found that cumulative oyster spatfall on off-bottom collector plates, measured throughout the summer in 14 years over a span of three decades, was highly positively correlated (r 2 = 0.8) with juvenile oyster recruitment on adjacent oyster bars. Total abundances of juvenile oysters on these bars were, however, generally 99.7% lower than predicted from cumulative seasonal larval settlement on collector plates. We propose that although the number of larvae metamorphosing was the key factor in determining the gross annual pattern of recruitment to these mesohaline oyster bars, the actual magnitude of recruitment was governed by post-settlement processes, such as competition for limited resources and predation. We tested the hypothesis that predation may be partly responsible for high post-settlement juvenile oyster mortality. We performed a series of 3-d field investigations over two summers (1989, 1990) at a mesohaline site, employing cages of various mesh sizes (400, 800, 1500 μm) to protect hatchery-reared spat of 0.5 to 4.0 mm shell height. Mortality rates for spat held for 3 d in the estuary (17.8%) were significantly higher (P = 0.0001) for the smallest spat (0.5 to 2.0 mm) compared with those of 2.01 to 4.0 mm (4.2%). In 1990, but not in 1989, enclosure within 400 and 800 μm mesh cages significantly (P = 0.004) increased survival during 3-d deployments (9.4 and 10.1%, respectively) compared with spat unprotected by mesh cages (21.9%). In a series of laboratory predation studies that used the entire community of invertebrates that could penetrate the cages, microscopic juvenile polyclad flatworms, Stylochus ellipticus, were the only organisms that we observed crawling into living oysters and feeding on oyster tissue. Large flatworms (50 to 200 mm2) are known to be important predators on oysters, but this ability of flatworms that were so small (<ca. 5 mm2) and translucent as to be almost invisible without magnification to feed on immediate post-metamorphic oysters has not been documented previously. Our results suggest that the rate of mortality due to predation in mesohaline Chesapeake Bay is much reduced once spat survive for 2 to 3 weeks post-metamorphosis. Thus, it is likely that predation in the 1 to 2 week period immediately after settlement may be a crucial factor in the structuring of eastern oyster populations.
KeywordsShell Height Larval Settlement Mesh Cage Crassostrea Virginica Oyster Tissue
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