Science Serving Maryland's Coasts

Research Publications: UM-SG-RS-2008-07


New hypothesis helps explain elasmobranch "OutBurst" on Georges bank in the 1980s.




Frisk, MG; Miller, TJ; Martell, SJD; Sosebee, K


Ecological Applications 18(1):234-245




Regime shifts are a feature of many ecosystems. During the last 40 years, intensive commercial exploitation and environmental changes have driven substantial shifts in ecosystem structure and function in the northwest Atlantic. In the Georges Bank-southern New England region, commercially important species have declined, and the ecosystem shifted to one dominated by economically undesirable species such as skates and dogfish. Aggregated abundance indices indicate a large increase of small and medium-sized elasmobranchs in the early 1980s following the decline of many commercial species. It has been hypothesized that ecological interactions such as competition and predation within the Georges Bank region were responsible for and are maintaining the "elasmobranch outburst" at the heart of the observed ecosystem shift. We offer an alternative hypothesis invoking population connectivity among winter skate populations such that the observed abundance increase is a result of migratory dynamics, perhaps with the Scotian Shelf (i.e., it is an open population). Here we critically evaluate the survey data for winter skate, the species principally responsible for the increase in total skate abundance during the 1980s on Georges Bank, to assess support for both hypotheses. We show that time series from different surveys within the Georges Bank region exhibit low coherence, indicating that a widespread population increase was not consistently shown by all surveys. Further, we argue that observed length-frequency data for Georges Bank indicate biologically unrealistic population fluctuations if the population is closed. Neither finding supports the elasmobranch outburst hypothesis. In contrast, survey time series for Georges Bank and the Scotian Shelf are negatively correlated, in support of the population connectivity hypothesis. Further, we argue that understanding the mechanisms of ecosystem state changes and population connectivity are needed to make inferences about both the causes and appropriate management responses to large-scale system change.

Maryland Sea Grant Topic(s): 

'Related Research Project(s)' link to details about research projects funded by Maryland Sea Grant that led to this publication. These details may include other impacts and accomplishments resulting from the research.

'Maryland Sea Grant Topic(s)' links to related pages on the Maryland Sea Grant website.