Monitoring a marine ecosystem using responses of upper trophic level predators
1 This study examined the changing status of the marine ecosystem at the island of South Georgia (Southern Ocean) using up to 27 variables measured over 22 years from three upper trophic level predators that specialize in foraging upon krill (Eupuasia superba Dana). These variables included population size, breeding performance, offspring growth rate, foraging behaviour and diet. A method was developed for reducing these multivariate time-series to a single vector, called a combined standardized index (CSI).
2 Sensitivity analyses showed that missing values had a large effect upon the accuracy of the CSI but this effect was reduced if the individual variables were highly correlated. The level of correlation and proportion of missing values within the empirical data set were within the acceptable range. Individual variables had widely varying influence upon the CSI but, in general, those with longer time-series had the greatest influence.
3 Principal components analysis showed that variables representing offspring growth tended to explain the greatest proportion of the variability in the CSI and this was followed by variables representing diet.
4 There were 3 years in which the CSI showed extreme and significantly low values. There was a significant non-linear functional response (similar to the Holling Type II functional response) between the overall CSI and krill biomass and a similar relationship existed when the CSI was calculated for each species individually.
5 Separate analysis of variables that were likely to be representative of changing population size showed the presence of a significant decline between 1977 and 1998. There was no trend in the CSI from variables representative of foraging conditions during the summer breeding season. The study has shown that the marine ecosystem at South Georgia shows acute but transient variability that is amplified in the response of upper trophic-level predators. There is less certainty that trends in populations are a consequence of shifts in the degree to which the ecosystem can support krill-feeding seals and penguins.