Recruitment of the 2010 Gulf Menhaden Recruitment Year Class
State and federal monitoring, both fishery-dependent and -independent, consistently indicate unprecedentedly high recruitment of Gulf menhaden to the age-0 juvenile life stage in 2010. The LDWF trawl survey of age-0 Gulf menhaden abundance in LDWF Zone 2 (Fig. 1) between the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers was 5.1 standard deviations greater than the average for the preceding years 1970–2009, and was 4.1 standard deviations above this mean for Louisiana waters east of the Mississippi River in LDWF Zone 1 (Fig. 3). West of the Atchafalaya River in LDWF Zone 3, recruitment was only 2.5 standard deviations greater. Similarly, the NMFS seine index of Gulf-wide age-0 recruitment was almost twice as high in 2010 as any prior year since methodologically consistent multi-state seine monitoring began in 1996 (Table 5.12 in Schueller et al. 2013).
Catch monitoring conducted by NMFS confirms the high recruitment of age-0 Gulf menhaden in 2010. The abundance of age-1 fish from the 2010 year class in the 2011 fishery catch was the highest since the late 1980’s despite a decline in fishing effort by a factor of nearly 2 (Fig. 4). High abundance of this year class persisted in the 2012 catch as age-2 fish, the second largest since the record began in 1964, further confirming the high initial recruitment of the 2010 year class and the persistence of this signal over the following 2 years.
As integrated by the BAM stock assessment, the monitoring data led to a recruitment estimate of 270 billion Gulf menhaden to the initial age-0 juvenile stage in 2010 (Fig. 5). This is 6.2 standard deviations (1 standard deviation = 26.8 billion fish) above the 105.9 billion average of previous yearly recruitments to the initial age-0 juvenile stage from 1977 through 2009. It is also 3.6 standard deviations, or nearly 100 billion fish, more than the previous record-high recruitment to age-0 of 174 billion fish in 1984 (Fig. 5). The corresponding BAM estimate of age-1 fish in 2011 from the 2010 year class is 53.5 billion fish [=2.7 × 1010 exp(M
0 = −1.62)], or 19 billion more fish than the 34.5 billion age-1 fish from the 1984 year class in 1985. Thus, the increase of the age-1 population from the 2010 year class over the age-1 population from the 1984 year class, the largest year class prior to 2010 since the record began in 1977, is nearly as large as the entire cohort population at age-1 for a typical year (21 billion age-1 fish; Fig. 5).
Surface Oiling from the Deepwater Horizon Blowout
Variation in the severity of coastal oiling from the DWH blowout along the northern GoM reflects the spatial pattern of Gulf menhaden recruitment strength in 2010. Surface oil slicks were heaviest and most persistent in LDWF Zone 2 (Fig. 1) along the western side of the Mississippi River delta and throughout Barataria Bay (Fig. 6), where oil slicks penetrated the offshore barrier islands resulting in transport into coastal estuaries and marsh edges, contaminating surface waters for weeks. Surface waters in LDWF Zone 1 east of the Mississippi River delta were less heavily but still substantially oiled. Further east, offshore barrier islands protected most of the estuaries and marshes sheltered by them from substantial oiling, and relatively little oil traveled west to the Atchafalaya River or beyond to contaminate coastal estuaries and marshes in LDWF Zone 3 (Figs. 1, 6).
The severity of coastal oiling also reflects the likely spatial distribution of seabirds killed by contact with surface oil slicks. Nearly all of the hundreds of thousands of coastal seabirds estimated to have been killed by contact with oil slicks from the DWH (Haney et al. 2014a) were piscivorous, and the population densities of such seabirds decrease rapidly with distance offshore (Mills 1998; Amorim et al. 2008; Zakkak et al. 2013). Seabird mortalities are thereby predicted to be greatest where the heaviest and most persistent oil slicks intersected with the highest seabird population densities, which occurred along the western side of the Mississippi River delta and shoreward of the coastal barrier island immediately further west, hence especially in Barataria Bay (i.e. LDWF Zone 2; Figs. 1, 6), and immediately east of the Mississippi River delta shoreward of the coastal barrier islands in Breton and Mississippi Sounds (i.e. LDWF Zone 1). In Barataria Bay, heavy oil slicks persisted for weeks (Fig. 6), which may have nearly extirpated seabird populations there given the great sensitivity of seabirds to contact with even small amounts of crude oil (Leighton 1993). More generally, comparison of the spatial variation of seabird mortality inferred from the distribution of coastal oiling intensity and persistence (Fig. 6) with Gulf menhaden recruitment strength in 2010 (Figs. 1, 3) indicates that the two may be closely related.
Indirect Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout on Gulf Menhaden Recruitment
Removal of seabirds that prey on juvenile Gulf menhaden necessarily increased survival of the juvenile Gulf menhaden. We address the question of how much impact the losses of piscivorous seabirds had on numbers of juvenile Gulf menhaden that would have been consumed had the oiled seabirds remained unaffected by the DWH. Haney et al. (2014a) computed a total of 535,000 (with 95% certainty within about 160,000–1,200,000) dead seabirds that, when alive, prey substantively on forage fish. About half of this total was laughing gulls (Leucophaeus atricilla). Other contributing species and species groups include other gulls, pelicans, terns, northern gannets, loons, cormorants, grebes and black skimmers (Table 1).
Based on our computations of the daily energetic requirements of seabirds satisfied through consumption of Gulf menhaden (see Methods), we estimate consumption of about 5 × 107 g wet weight of juvenile Gulf menhaden per day by 535,000 dead seabirds distributed among species according to estimated numbers killed (Table 1). Northern gannets (Morus bassanus), laughing gulls, brown pelicans (Pelecanus occidentalus) and assorted tern species account for 93% of this consumption, and typically target forage fish ranging from 30 to 100 mm in length.
The estimated numbers of juveniles equivalent to the wet weight of un-consumed Gulf menhaden is sensitive to the assumed size selectivity of the seabird predators for their forage fish prey, and the vulnerability of fish within the preferred size ranges. Juvenile Gulf menhaden spend about 3 months from the time they begin forming schools in open estuarine waters at about 40 mm in length (Deegan 1986) to reach 62 mm in length (Eq. 1). The range of the Gulf menhaden spawning season and the subsequent developmental time ranges leads to metamorphosis to juveniles from about mid-April through mid-August, with the bulk of schooling 40–62 mm juveniles present from about mid-May through mid-September (Fig. 2). Juvenile Gulf menhaden schools are probably most vulnerable to avian predation during the initial 2 or 3 months after forming schools in the more open estuarine waters, when their schools are most readily visible from the air in the shallow estuarine waters. Note that the initial formation of these juvenile Gulf menhaden schools in large numbers coincided closely with the onset of widespread seabird mortalities from coastal oiling in 2010 (Fig. 2), so that the piscivorous seabirds that would have heavily targeted these fish schools were rapidly diminished just as the schools became widely exposed to avian predation.
If consumption of Gulf menhaden were mainly satisfied by juveniles 40–62 mm in length when they are initially exposed to predation by coastal seabirds, an average weight of 2 g for this size range of Gulf menhaden (computed as the time-averaged integral of Eq. 2 over the time required for length to increase from 40 to 62 mm) implies a daily consumption of about 2.5 × 107 fish [=(5 × 107 g)/(2 g/fish)]. This suggests that oil-caused mortality of 535,000 seabirds may have increased survival of juvenile Gulf menhaden by ~2.5 × 107 fish/day, or by a total of ~5 billion fish [=(2.5 × 107 fish/day)(200 days)] over the course of 6+ months from the onset of bird mortalities in mid-May through late November of 2010 (Fig. 2).
Foregone consumption of ~5 billion juvenile Gulf menhaden in the coastal area by the estimated 535,000 seabirds killed by the DWH is ecologically feasible given the abundance of age-0 juveniles during a typical year. The assumed natural mortality rate M
0 = 1.62 implies that, for an average year, the initial recruitment of 105.9 billion fish at metamorphosis to the age-0 juvenile life stage (Fig. 5) declines to 21 billion juveniles [=105.9 billion fish × exp(−1.62)] at the beginning of age-1 the following year, indicating that 85 billion age-0 juvenile Gulf menhaden (i.e. 105.9 billion–21 billion) are either consumed by predators, or die from diseases, exposure to hypoxic conditions, or other factors that contribute to the natural mortality rate. This suggests that consumption of age-0 Gulf menhaden by all avian predators combined, including those not accounted for in Table 1 and those that survived the DWH, could range into the tens of billions during a typical year and still only account for a modest fraction of the ~85 billion age-0 Gulf menhaden that are removed in total. Such a substantive role played by seabird predation on a forage fish population is not unique, as it has been noted previously for the anchoveta (Engraulis ringens) fishery off Peru (Schaefer 1970).
We underestimate enhanced survival of juvenile Gulf menhaden in the coastal area by excluding (1) avian predation on fish smaller than 40 mm in length, (2) the increase in energy demands to provision seabird chicks, and (3) predation foregone by bottlenose dolphins and other piscivorous marine mammals killed by exposure to oil (Schwacke et al. 2013; Venn-Watson et al. 2015). Perhaps more importantly, we did not consider reduced predation associated with un-quantified yet evident, oil-induced mortality among the piscivorous birds inhabiting the extensive marshes and estuarine shorelines associated with the Mississippi River delta. Marsh-dwelling birds, such as herons, egrets, rails, bitterns, and cormorants, may prey heavily on small juvenile menhaden, but their population losses from oil contact were not well quantified. The combined additional consumption of juvenile Gulf menhaden by seabirds to meet demands to provision chicks, by bottlenose dolphins and other piscivorous marine mammals that were killed, and by marsh-dwelling birds could increase substantially the actual survival of age-0 Gulf menhaden to well above the ~5 billion fish we estimate on the basis of the oiled seabird carcasses retrieved from shorelines.
Depressed salinities that resulted from diversion of Mississippi River water to coastal marshes to reduce oiling from the DWH may have been another source of indirect effects that decreased predation mortality of juvenile Gulf menhaden. The State of Louisiana dramatically increased the flow rates out of Mississippi River freshwater diversions into Barataria Bay and Breton Sound to impede the flow of oil into upper estuary marshes. Freshwater flow to these marshes increased by a factor of ~5 from late April through late July for eastern marshes or through early-September 2010 for western marshes (O’connor 2013; Fig. 2). The salinities of marshes east of the Mississippi River remained below 10‰ out to the open waters of Breton Sound during May and June 2010 (LDWF 2010), and below 6‰ west of the Mississippi River to western Barataria Bay from June through early September 2010 (LDWF 2011b). These diversions also correspond with the period of greatest abundance of 40–62 mm age-0 Gulf menhaden (Fig. 2). These abnormally low salinities provided enlarged areas of effective shelter for juvenile Gulf menhaden from predation by marine fishes and invertebrate predators that usually consume juvenile Gulf menhaden but prefer higher salinities (Das et al. 2012) contributing to increased survival and hence recruitment of Gulf menhaden to age 1.
Our estimate of increased survival on the order of 5 billion or more juvenile Gulf menhaden serves primarily to demonstrate that the deaths of hundreds of thousands of coastal seabirds would certainly have increased survival of age-0 Gulf menhaden substantially, feasibly by several billions of fish. Greater precision in such estimates is unwarranted given the considerable uncertainties associated with the numbers of coastal seabirds killed, their actual daily energy requirements, their dietary dependence on Gulf menhaden, prey size selectivity, and dates of onset of mortality of birds that regularly prey on juvenile Gulf menhaden. In any case a survival increase of even ~5 billion age-0 juveniles in the coastal area, based only on the oiled seabird carcasses retrieved from shorelines, is sufficiently large to be considered as substantive in comparison with recruitment of 21 billion juveniles to age-1 during a typical year (Fig. 5).
Other Factors Affecting Gulf Menhaden Recruitment in 2010
Compared with many other forage fish species, the population of Gulf menhaden had been extraordinarily stable prior to the DWH, varying in abundance by less than a factor of 3 from 1977 to 2009 (Fig. 5). Population fecundity determines the initial abundance of Gulf menhaden larvae, while marine feeding conditions and speed of physically driven transport to estuarine rearing habitat determine initial survival. Subsequent survival in estuaries as larvae grow and metamorph to juveniles varies with availability of food supplies and oxygen, and with losses to predation. In 2010, direct interactions arising from the toxic effects of crude oil and dispersants following the DWH must also be considered as factors potentially affecting recruitment.
Weak correlation between fecundity and recruitment, as estimated by the BAM from 1977 through 2009 (r = −0.251, df = 31, P = 0.159; from data presented in Tables 7.4 and 7.5 in Schueller et al. 2013; plotted in Fig. 5), indicate that Gulf menhaden recruitment is mainly determined by factors other than fecundity. Estimated Gulf menhaden fecundity for the 2010 year class was 36.4 trillion eggs, about 81% of the average fecundity of 45.1 trillion eggs for 1977–2009, which should have led to near-average recruitment in 2010 if recruitment were determined mainly by fecundity.
Marine feeding conditions were exceptionally favorable for survival of newly-hatched Gulf menhaden larvae in 2010. Monthly median chlorophyll a calculated from Sea-viewing Wide Field-of-View Sensor (SeaWiFS) satellite imagery was ~50% greater during January through April 2010 than in the decade prior (Fig. 7, from Karnauskas et al. 2013) in coastal waters from 10 to 100 m seafloor depth and between −87°W and −93°W latitude, which encompasses most of the Gulf menhaden spawning habitat. Similarly high and persistent chlorophyll a concentrations were detected by SeaWiFS imagery in 1998 in these waters (Fig. 7; see also Fig. 12 in Muller-Karger et al. 2015), but this was associated with only modestly greater-than-average recruitment of age-0 Gulf menhaden for that year (Fig. 5). Comparison of age-0 recruitment for 2010 and 1998 with corresponding SeaWiFS chlorophyll a concentrations suggests that while high concentrations of phytoplankton available to Gulf menhaden larvae at sea enhance recruitment, the elevated concentrations present in 2010 apparently account for only a small part of the exceptional increase in recruitment that occurred that year.
The oceanographic conditions that led to higher neritic phytoplankton concentrations during winter and spring 2010 also had the consequence of impeding passive transport of Gulf menhaden larvae to their estuarine rearing habitat. The high neritic phytoplankton concentrations during winter 2010 were caused by unusually high discharge from the Mississippi River (Fig. 8) combined with unusually strong and persistent offshore winds. High river discharge during fall and winter promotes surface layer stratification of receiving waters by less dense river water laden with inorganic nutrients essential for phytoplankton growth (Lohrenz et al. 1997), which led in 2010 to an intense winter phytoplankton bloom over an unusually large area adjacent to the Mississippi River delta (Fig. 7; Huang et al. 2013). The strong, persistent offshore winds during winter and spring (Huang et al. 2013), together with high river discharge during fall and winter, impeded larval transport from offshore towards the estuarine rearing habitat. Govoni (1997) found that annual Mississippi River discharge was negatively associated with numbers of half-year recruits, and suggested that higher discharges result in an expansive plume, which may propel larvae further offshore and delay the shoreward transport of larvae, hence increasing their vulnerability to predation. Historically, mean monthly discharges of the Mississippi and Atchafalaya Rivers from November through March accounted for nearly 30% of Gulf menhaden recruitment variability in regression analyses (Guillory et al. 1983; Vaughan et al. 2011). Hence, the oceanographic conditions during winter and spring 2010 should have lowered recruitment of the 2010 Gulf menhaden year class, partially or even entirely offsetting the effects of favorable phytoplankton abundance.
Schools of juvenile Gulf menhaden experience large fish kills in shallow estuarine waters during exceptionally hot weather, which contribute to natural mortality (VanderKooy and Smith 2002). Cool summers may therefore be expected to promote the recruitment of age-1 juveniles. However, as measured by the number of days when the maximum air temperature at New Orleans exceeded 35 °C, 2010 was the 4th hottest summer since 1977, thereby increasing the likelihood of large fish kills caused by estuarine hypoxia and hence reducing recruitment.
The seasonal succession of habitats occupied by the 2010 year class of Gulf menhaden ensured that direct effects of exposure to crude oil released during the DWH or to dispersants released subsequently were virtually negligible. By the time the blowout occurred on 20 April, the offshore spawning of the 2010 year class was complete and nearly all of the larvae had been transported to brackish upper-estuarine rearing habitat, removing larvae away from possible exposure to crude oil or dispersants (Fig. 2). Juvenile Gulf menhaden from the earliest spawning of the 2010 year class in fall 2009 would have begun forming schools and occupying more open and saline estuarine waters by March or April, where they did not encounter oil until these habitats became oiled initially in mid-May. Similarly, juveniles from later spawns would have first encountered oil in the open estuarine waters for a few weeks at most during June and early July. Exposure to contaminants derived from dispersants or from crude oil from the DWH was therefore limited to intermittent or transient occupancy of waters beneath surface oil slicks for a few days or weeks by a small part of the 2010 year class of Gulf menhaden, even in heavily oiled embayments such as Barataria Bay, because surface slicks were widespread in these embayments for less than about 2 of the 6+ months of outmigration of juveniles from their brackish upper-estuarine rearing habitat.
Direct toxicity of crude oil or dispersants that were associated with the DWH to age-0 juvenile Gulf menhaden, or to the piscivorous fishes that consume them was also probably negligible, because of the low aqueous solubility of toxic components in crude oil or dispersants and the great dilution capacity of the receiving surface waters. Toxicity thresholds depend on mode of toxic action, ranging from narcosis induced mainly by mono- and dicyclic aromatic compounds at concentrations near one part per million (Malins and Hodgins 1981; DiToro and McGrath 2000), to embryotoxic and photo-enhanced toxicity induced by certain PAC at less than one part per billion (Carls et al. 2002; Duesterloh et al. 2002; Mager et al. 2014). However, contaminant monitoring after the DWH provides little support for inferring toxic effects of oil to aquatic organisms present in the nearshore water column, except in the immediate vicinity of shorelines that were heavily and persistently oiled. The overwhelming majority of surface seawater samples taken from the uppermost 50 m near shore during 2010 failed even to detect PAC at detection limits in the low parts per trillion (Fig. 6). Deployment of polyethylene membrane passive sampling devices along the coast of the northern GoM before and after shoreline oiling from the DWH confirm these results (Allan et al. 2012). Total PAC concentrations inferred from these deployments were consistently less than 0.03 µg/L at all but one station (Grand Terre, LA), where concentrations approached 0.2 µg/L during early summer 2010 but declined to <0.03 µg/L by August.
Comparison of Ordinary Factors that Typically Affect Gulf Menhaden Recruitment with Indirect Effects of the Deepwater Horizon Blowout
Ordinary biological and environmental factors that typically affect Gulf menhaden recruitment, such as changes in population fecundity, early life stage feeding conditions, speed of transport to estuarine rearing habitat, etc., alone or in combination, fail to adequately account for the extraordinarily high recruitment of juvenile Gulf menhaden documented in 2010. Prior to 2010, the highest recruitment of age-0 Gulf menhaden estimated by the BAM in 1984 led to an estimate of 34 billion age-1 Gulf menhaden at the beginning of 1985 (Fig. 5). The 2.5 standard deviation increase of age-0 recruitment observed in the 2010 LDWF trawl surveys west of the Atchafalaya River (Fig. 3), which was much less affected by oiling from the DWH, suggests the magnitude of the increased recruitment in 2010 that may be attributed to the combined effects of the ordinary biological and environmental factors that typically affect recruitment. Given that average recruitment to age 1 from 1977 through 2009 was 21 billion fish with a standard deviation of 5.3 billion (Fig. 5), 2.5 standard deviations above the mean amounts to a population size at age-1 of 34 billion fish, similar to the previous record set by the 1984 year class. Recruitment of age-0 Gulf menhaden in 1998, when larval feeding conditions offshore were nearly as favorable as in 2010 (Fig. 8), led to 24 billion age-1 Gulf menhaden in 1999. Given that favorable larval feeding conditions offshore in 2010 were at least partially offset by unfavorable conditions for larval transport onshore to estuarine nursery habitat, it seems unlikely that even an unusually favorable combination of ordinary biological and environmental factors that typically affect recruitment would have led to an age-1 population much greater than 34 billion fish from the 2010 year class.
The 2010 Gulf menhaden year class had an estimated 53.5 billion age-1 fish, or ~19 billion more than the ~34 billion age-1 fish we consider near the maximum that could result from the combined effects of ordinary biological and environmental factors. This additional ~19 billion age-1 fish above the highest previously-estimated recruitment on record (in 1984, see Fig. 5), is nearly equivalent to the median recruitment of 21 billion age-1 fish from 1977 to 2009, and hence is, by itself, nearly as large as the entire recruitment of Gulf menhaden during a typical prior year. Of this ~19 billion increase of age-1 fish, decreased predation caused indirectly by the DWH may well have been the major contributing cause. This increased survival of several billions from decreased predation does not imply unreasonably high numbers of seabirds killed, of juvenile Gulf menhaden that would ordinarily be consumed by them, or unfeasibly large proportions of natural mortality losses implied by the foregone consumption. Although our assumptions led to an estimated additional survival of ~5 billion juvenile Gulf menhaden in the coastal area because of the piscivorous seabirds killed by the DWH, overall survivals could have been considerably higher if more seabirds were killed, or the seabirds killed preferred to consume smaller sizes of juveniles or smaller sizes were more available to them, or juvenile Gulf menhaden account for substantially more than 50% of forage fish consumed by these seabirds during summer and fall. Recognizing the additional numbers of juvenile Gulf menhaden that were not consumed to provision the chicks of the seabirds killed, or that would have been consumed by the bottlenose dolphins or piscivorous birds inhabiting marshes that were killed by exposure to oil, along with possibly reduced predation by aquatic predators that avoid low-salinity estuarine waters, suggests to us that most or even all of the ~19 billion additional surviving age-1 juvenile Gulf menhaden may have been an indirect consequence of direct effects of the DWH on predators of juvenile Gulf menhaden.
Conversely, ordinary biological and environmental factors that typically affect Gulf menhaden recruitment, alone or in combination, fail to provide an obvious explanation for the strong variation of Gulf menhaden recruitment along the Louisiana coast in 2010, where recruitment was strongest where coastal oiling was heaviest and most persistent (Fig. 6), whereas oil-caused mortalities of coastal seabirds and marine mammals account for this variation readily. While it is always possible that some unknown combination of factors may in fact be responsible for the extraordinary recruitment of juvenile Gulf menhaden, we could find no evidence that substantively contradicts the effects we have ascribed to release from predation caused by the DWH, and we do find considerable circumstantial evidence in support. We therefore conclude that mortalities of seabirds, marsh birds and marine mammals, perhaps augmented by habitat exclusion of aquatic predators intolerant of low salinities, was a major factor explaining the anomalously large recruitment of the 2010 year class of Gulf menhaden.
Our evaluation of the potential causes of spatially explicit increases in recruitment of Gulf menhaden following the DWH provides compelling evidence for a little appreciated environmental effect that may be generally induced by large oil spills. Actually, this effect of increased fishery recruitment may have been observed but not recognized many times before in fishery populations after major oil spills, with the analysts looking at the affected populations failing to observe this signal when mixed in with large process errors in computing recruitment. Following the DWH, the increases of numerous fish species reported by Fodrie and Heck (2011) and by Schaefer et al. (2016) may also have resulted mainly from reduced predation from piscivorous seabirds killed by exposure to DWH oil. We arbitrarily assumed that juvenile Gulf menhaden furnished 50% of the forage fish diet of the piscivorous seabirds listed in Table 1, the other 50% being furnished by other species of forage fishes. Hence, our estimate of increased survival on the order of ~5 billion age-0 Gulf menhaden in the coastal area implies a survival increase of comparable magnitude for the other forage fish species that would have been consumed by piscivorous seabirds had they not been killed by oil from the DWH.
This process whereby recruitment of Gulf menhaden and of other forage fish species is enhanced in nearshore nursery habitats may have had consequences at the ecosystem scale in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The increased recruitment of the 2010 year class of Gulf menhaden led to an increase of population biomass of nearly 1.3 million t, or more than twice the average biomass of 1.1 million t for the decade prior to 2010. An increase of this magnitude in a forage fish species that is already a major component of the neritic ecosystem of the northern GoM (Geers et al. 2014; Sagarese et al. 2016) raises the possibility of additional effects associated with trophic linkages to Gulf menhaden at population-, trophic-level and ecosystem scales. Substantially greater biomass of Gulf menhaden would increase predation on their planktonic prey, which could conceivably affect recruitment of other aquatic species that co-inhabit waters occupied by Gulf menhaden. Greater biomass of Gulf menhaden in 2011 (Fig. 5) also increased their availability to their surviving predators, presumably benefiting their recovery. Analyses of the dynamics of interacting species in this study suggest that indirect effects of large oil spills may be much more important, more subtle and wide-reaching than has been previously appreciated.