Did a “perfect storm” of oceanic changes and continental anthropogenic impacts cause northern hemisphere anguillid recruitment reductions?
ICES Journal of Marine Science (
Michael J. Miller 1
Eric Feunteun 0
Katsumi Tsukamoto 1
0 Museum National D'Histoire Naturelle, Station Marine de Dinard , 38, rue du port Blanc Dinard , France
1 Laboratory of Eel Science, Department of Marine Science and Resources, College of Bioresource Sciences, Nihon University , 1866 Kameino, Fujisawa-shi, Kanagawa 252-0880 , Japan
Miller, M. J., Feunteun, E., and Tsukamoto, K. Did a “perfect storm” of oceanic changes and continental anthropogenic impacts cause northern hemisphere anguillid recruitment reductions? - ICES Journal of Marine Science, 73: 43 - 56. The three northern hemisphere anguillid eel species experienced recruitment declines at similar times beginning in the 1970s and 1980s, but the exact causes of the declines have remained unclear. Attention focused on two categories of possible causes that included (i) anthropogenic impacts on eel growth habitats, such as dam construction, degradation and pollution of habitats, introduction of parasites, overfishing and (ii) changes in ocean-atmospheric conditions affecting their marine life-history stages. The cumulative effects of reaching peaks in dam construction, levels of pollution, and eutrophication just before the eel declines likely had reduced eel production in many areas, and contamination by metallic and organic compounds and parasites may have reduced reproductive success. Shifts in ocean-atmospheric conditions also occurred just before the eel declines that could have reduced feeding success of larvae or disrupted larval transport. If oceanic regime shifts reduced production of the marine snow food of eel larvae, it may have affected larval survival and recruitment success, especially if there is a critical time-window for successful larval first feeding when marine snow particles need to be abundant. A reduction of these particles could result in density-dependent early mortality of the larvae of each spawning event, and competition for marine snow particles with sympatrically spawning mesopelagic eel larvae would amplify this effect. Nutrient reductions causing shifts in the relative abundance of phytoplankton contributing to marine snow production and of ubiquitous cyanobacteria may mediate levels of larval survival in areas with high spawning activity. Reductions of eels reaching the spawning area from species range margins that spawn outside of peak spawning periods could have reduced recruitment further. It appears likely that a variety of impacts, oceanic and anthropogenic occurred simultaneously causing sudden declines of these eel populations.
anguillid eels; anthropogenic impacts; density-dependent larval survival; oceanic regime shifts; population declines
In the last few decades of the 20th century, declines in recruitment
and reduced standing stocks of the three species of northern
hemisphere anguillid eels were observed that attracted considerable
attention from scientists and helped to stimulate new research
(Castonguay et al., 1994a, b; Haro et al., 2000; Feunteun, 2002,
Casselman, 2003; Dekker, 2003a; Dekker et al., 2003; Knights,
2003; Tsukamoto et al., 2009). Recruitment to parts of the species
ranges dropped to low levels, such as the Netherlands and other
areas for the European eel, Anguilla anguilla (Dekker, 1998; ICES,
2014) and the St. Lawrence River at the northern edge of the range
of the American eel, Anguilla rostrata (Castonguay et al., 1994a;
Casselman, 2003), or for the Japanese eel, Anguilla japonica, in
many areas (Tsukamoto et al., 2009). These three species are
widely distributed across many countries within their large species
ranges and have been commercially harvested to varying degrees
during their glass eel, yellow eel, and silver eel stages (Casselman,
2003; Dekker, 2003a; Tsukamoto and Kuroki, 2014), so their
declines have been a major concern. The declines in recruitment
and catches of yellow and silver eels of these three species began at
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various times in the 1960s to 1980s, and continued until the last few
years, at least for the European eel (Figure 1; Casselman, 2003;
Tsukamoto et al., 2009; ICES, 2014); although the trends of
recruitment levels of the American, Japanese, and European, eels may have
been more stable in some areas after the initial declines occurred
(Sullivan et al., 2006; Tzeng et al., 2012; Adams et al., 2013).
Human impacts on ecosystems within the regions where these
eels live, along with species overexploitation/removal, are
wellknown, especially for fisheries species (Vitousek et al., 1997; Lotze
et al., 2006; Humphries and Winemiller, 2009; Limburg and
Waldman, 2009; Estes et al., 2011). What is somewhat unusual
about the case of catadromous anguillid eels compared with
fisheries resources that appear to have declined as a result of overfishing
(Lotze et al., 2006) is that the exact causes of the eel declines have
not yet been clearly determined. As described below, there are clear
hypotheses for what could have happened, with various levels of
support for some factors, but it is difficult to empirically determine
causes of the declines primarily because it is impossible to assess the
spawning stock abundance in their offshore spawning areas or even
if this is linked to recruitment levels (Dekker, 2003b; Astro¨m and
Dekker, 2007). There is also only minimal information about
escapement of the migratory reproductive-stage silver eels except to
some extent for the European eel (Feunteun et al., 2000; Dekker,
2003b; Astro¨m and Dekker, 2007; ICES, 2013; Prigge et al., 2013),
making it difficult to link declines to any one factor. This inability
to determine direct causes of the declines has in part resulted in
many of the 19 anguillid species/subspecies in the world being
recently listed in the IUCN Red List (IUCN, 2014), with the
European eel being listed as critically endangered in 2010 and having
its export banned by the Convention on International Trade of
Endangered Species (CITES, 2006).
Two general types of causes have been proposed to be responsible
for eel declines, which include (i) anthropogenic effects on their
continental life-history stages and (ii) changes in ocean-atmosphere
factors affecting their marine stages. Many types of information
indicate reductions in available habitats due to dams and river
modifications, contaminants, parasite introduction, or overfishing have
affected eels and therefore contributed to their population declines
(Haro et al., 2000; Feunteun, 2002; Robinet and Feunteun, 2002;
Kirk, 2003; Geeraerts and Belpaire, 2010; Kettle et al., 2011;
Itakura et al., 2014). Several studies have also correlated recruitment
or eel abundance indices with ocean-atmosphere-related
parameters (Knights, 2003; Friedland et al., 2007; Bonhommeau et al.,
2008a, b; Kettle et al., 2008; Durif et al., 2011; Arribas et al., 2012).
These studies suggest that recruitment fluctuations may be
influenced by aspects of spawning success, larval survival in the spawning
area, or survival during larval growth and transport. However, because
various time-lags have been used to find correlations between
ocean-atmosphere parameters and eel recruitment/abundance data,
these studies provide limited definitive proof of a cause-and-effect
relationship between environmental factors and eel recruitment
without more specific evidence being available.
Therefore, it has been difficult to reach clear conclusions about
what are the primary driving factors of declines of northern
hemisphere anguillid eels. It has been acknowledged, however, that a
mixture of factors probably caused the declines, including both
directly anthropogenic-related factors and more environmentally
related factors in the ocean or atmosphere (e.g. Castonguay et al.,
1994a; Miller et al., 2009; Kettle et al., 2011; Hanel et al., 2014).
In this paper, we briefly examine both the general types of
anthropogenic factors that may have affected eels and how regime
shifts in ocean-atmosphere conditions could have caused changes
in the ocean that may also have affected eels. The timelines of
possible occurrences of these factors are qualitatively examined in
comparison with when eel populations began to decline, because
although many factors could be affecting eel populations, some
may not be the primary cause of the rapid declines that occurred
at nearly simultaneous times for all three species. We propose a
potential mechanism for how a shift in the fluctuations of relative
abundances of eukaryotic and cyanobacteria primary producers
could influence recruitment levels through regulating
densitydependent early larval survival in the spawning area, and how this
in combination with anthropogenically caused population
reductions and species range and spawning time contractions may have
acted synergistically to reduce overall eel recruitment each year. It
is not our intention to attempt to comprehensively review all the
literature associated with these subjects (see Knights, 2003; Tesch,
2003; Kettle et al., 2008, 2011; Miller, 2009; Miller et al., 2009;
ICES, 2013, 2014 and previous reports for recent reviews; and
literature cited by papers included in the present paper). Instead our goal
is to provide some general historical perspective and propose a few
new hypotheses to facilitate improving understanding of this
subject. The fact that both anthropogenic factors and ocean-atmosphere
changes seemed to converge during the same period when northern
hemisphere anguillid eels began to decline is not in itself evidence
of what the causal factors were, but it is suggestive of the possibility
that a “perfect storm” of impacts on eels could have interacted to
reduce their populations.
Timelines of anthropogenic impacts on eels
Anguillid eels move far upstream into freshwater river systems with
large, older females being found upstream and a larger proportion of
males and young eels being found in lower reaches and estuaries
when eels are abundant (Feunteun et al., 2003; Tesch, 2003).
Therefore, eels are especially vulnerable to the blockages to upstream
migration that occurred due to dam construction in the last 60 years
(Figure 2; World Commission on Dams, 2000; Lehner et al., 2011).
This has undoubtedly had a profound effect on the standing stock of
eels in the northern hemisphere, because dams have made these
areas have some of the lowest average free-flowing percentages of
watercourse lengths in the world (Liermann et al., 2012), thus
blocking the passage of eels into vast drainages areas. Even if silver eels are
able to pass upstream, hydroelectric dams can also adversely affect
escapement of silver eels, because of mortality from downstream
passage through turbines (McCleave, 2001). Many hydroelectric
dams were built within the species range of the American eel
(Figure 2D), with greatest densities being in the centre of the
species range (Graf, 1999). More than 15,000 dams including 5000
dams 7 m or higher were built in the North Atlantic coast
drainages, blocking direct access to 87% of river and stream reaches
flowing into the Atlantic (Busch et al., 1998), which has greatly
reduced the present-day American eel inland range (see Miller
and Casselman, 2013). Similarly, extensive dam construction
across many regions of Europe (including .1400 dams with
reservoirs; Lehner et al., 2011) and North Africa, resulted in some
drainages having hundreds of obstructions (Kettle et al., 2011; Van
Looy et al., 2014). In East Asia, many dams have been constructed,
including 2675 large dams (.15 m high) in Japan that may have
reduced abundances of eels by reducing access to upstream areas
(Tatsukawa, 2003; Yoshimura et al., 2005; Han et al., 2008).
Extensive revetment and channelization of the lower reaches of
most river systems in Japan and other parts of East Asia have
likely affected eels (Yoshimura et al., 2005; Chen et al., 2014;
Itakura et al., 2014). The timing of construction of these dams
and river modifications has varied to some extent among regions,
with dam construction peaking slightly earlier in Europe than
Asia and the number of dams being constructed decreasing in
recent decades (Figure 2; Kettle et al., 2011). Many wetland areas
have been filled and converted into land within estuaries or
further inland along rivers and lakes (Kettle et al., 2011;
Moreno-Mateos et al., 2012; Chen et al., 2014), which also represent
a loss of growth habitat for eels. Anthropogenic modifications to
river systems and estuaries that caused loss of habitat and
connectivity have occurred far back in human history, for various purposes
such as agriculture, mills, water level management, and flood
control, but they greatly increased after the Industrial Revolution
(Hoffmann et al., 2010).
In addition to structural modifications to aquatic habitats,
freshwater, and estuarine ecosystems have experienced a wide range of
other anthropogenic impacts including sedimentation, chemical
contamination, eutrophication, and fisheries harvests that can
affect the community structure of the ecosystem there to various
degrees (Jackson et al., 2001; Robinet and Feunteun, 2002;
Yoshimura et al., 2005; Hering et al., 2006; Lotze et al., 2006;
Sønderdraard and Jeppesen, 2007; Humphries and Winemiller,
2009; Geeraerts and Belpaire, 2010) and likely affect the growth
and survival of eels. Vast inland areas were deforested and replaced
with urban areas, agricultural fields or second-growth forests
(Williams, 2000), which would have caused extensive input of
sediments into rivers and streams (Wilkinson and McElroy, 2007).
Industrialization resulted in releases of heavy metals, polycyclic
aromatic hydrocarbons, organochlorine compounds, dioxins, and
other chemicals contaminants into rivers and streams (Meybeck
and Helmer, 1989; Malmqvist and Rundle, 2002). Residential and
urban development increased the amount of sewage entering
aquatic systems until wastewater treatment facilities were built
(Lofrano and Brown, 2010). Sewage effluents, the use of phosphate
detergents, and fertilizer for agriculture (Figure 3A) all entered
freshwater systems causing extensive eutrophication in many areas
where eels would have been present (Litke 1999; de Jonge et al.,
2002; Smith, 2003; Yoshimura et al., 2005; Savage et al., 2010).
Use of pesticides and their entry into terrestrial and aquatic
environments increased substantially starting in about the 1940s and
reached maximum use in developed countries in the 1970s before
levelling off, at which time they were replaced by new chemicals or
other pest control methods (Zadoks and Waibel, 2000; Stoate
et al., 2009).
Sediment cores analysed in the northern hemisphere to examine
the timelines of release of these types of pollutants indicate that there
are similar historical patterns for levels of chemical contaminants
and nutrient inputs to aquatic systems. Levels increased rapidly
throughout 1920 – 1970 (Figure 3) that corresponds to the
expansion of industrialization, agriculture, and urbanization. Levels
usually decreased after regulations were imposed to control these
problems (Litke, 1999; Balogh et al., 2009; Hosono et al., 2010;
Savage et al., 2010; Wiener and Sandheinrich, 2010; Vane et al.,
2011; Heim and Schwarzbauer, 2013). The exact timing of the
occurrence, maximum levels, and eventual decreases depend on the
location and input sources, but timelines are generally similar, because
beginning around the 1970s, awareness of harmful effects of
pollutants and excess nutrients on aquatic ecosystems increased and
legislation began to be enacted to prevent further contamination (Litke,
1999; Wiener and Sandheinrich, 2010). There are exceptions to this
pattern however, such as for mercury emissions from gold mining in
North America, which peaked in the late 1800s then disappeared after
1925, or some heavy metals or polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons
that were mostly released in earlier years (Lima et al., 2003; Balogh
et al., 2009; Heim and Schwarzbauer, 2013). The effects of
contaminant releases can still be felt today however, since eel fisheries in
some areas of Europe have been closed because the contaminant
loads in eels make them unfit for human consumption (ICES,
2013), and contaminants are present in eels from many parts of
Europe and North America (Geeraerts and Belpaire, 2010; ICES,
The effects of aquatic habitat modifications and community
structure changes on eels are difficult to quantify, although
growth rates of eels are slower in freshwater habitats where extensive
impacts have occurred compared with brackish habitats (Cairns
et al., 2009; Marohn et al., 2013); and many eels tend to leave
freshwater and move to estuaries in some areas, or make seasonal
movements between habitat types at high latitudes (see Jessop et al., 2008;
Cle´ment et al., 2014). In addition, the bioaccumulation of
contaminants has been speculated to affect the migratory or reproductive
capabilities of silver eels (Castonguay et al., 1994a; Robinet and
Feunteun, 2002; van Ginneken, 2009; ICES, 2013). This suggests
that the collective effects of reduced growth or reproductive
potential for eels from freshwater has occurred, especially if slow growth or
poor body condition reduces the number of eels that have sufficient
energy reserves to reach the spawning area and successfully
reproduce (Belpaire et al., 2009; Clevestam et al., 2011).
Introductions of parasites or the occurrence of viruses have also
affected eels in some areas. The parasitic swimbladder nematode,
Anguillicola crassus, was introduced into European and North
American waters in the early 1980s (Europe) and 1990s (N.
America) then spread to many areas (Barse and Secor, 1999; Kirk,
2003). It affects the swimbladder of eels living in freshwater, but
infection rates are lower in brackish water (Jakob et al., 2009a; ICES,
2013). Infection may result in reduced swimming abilities in silver
eels migrating to their spawning areas (Palstra et al., 2007; Sjo¨berg
et al., 2009). Eels infected with viruses (van Ginneken et al., 2004;
Jakob et al., 2009b) could also have reduced swimming abilities
that might affect their chances to reach the spawning area and
successfully reproduce (van Ginneken et al., 2005).
Fisheries can likely reduce the number of silver eels escaping from
continental waters each year, especially when they are harvested
during their downstream migrations. Examining the timelines of
fisheries harvests of the three species northern temperate anguillid
eels is beyond the scope of this paper and this has been done
previously (e.g. Casselman, 2003; Dekker, 2003b; Tatsukawa, 2003; Kettle
et al., 2008; ICES, 2013; Itakura et al., 2014; Yokouchi et al., 2014).
Dataseries on harvest are complicated by changes in levels of
fishing effort and the accuracy of catch reporting (Casselman,
2003; Dekker, 2003a, b; Itakura et al., 2014), but harvests seem to
reflect the trends in levels of recruitment that increased in decades
leading up to the 1970s and 1980s then decreased thereafter
(Gascuel et al., 1995; Casselman, 2003; Dekker, 2003b; Tatsukawa,
2003; Tsukamoto et al., 2009). Although fisheries catches may
have sometimes reduced the number of eels in particular areas,
especially perhaps for the Japanese eel whose glass eels are extensively
captured for use in aquaculture (Tsukamoto et al., 2009), we are
unaware of any clear evidence that fisheries catches directly triggered
the declines of the northern hemisphere anguillid eels.
This brief overview of anthropogenic influences on anguillid eels
indicates that the population sizes, individual growth or survival,
and possibly the success of silver eels to reach the spawning area
and successfully reproduce were affected by some types of human
activities in the last hundred years that included the Industrial
Revolution and continued human population growth and
development of natural areas. Interestingly, the levels of occurrence of many
of these activities such as release of contaminants and nutrients into
freshwater (Figure 3) or the construction of dams (Figure 2) tended
to reach a climax just before anguillid populations began to decline.
However, often, the levels of these impacts were steadily reduced
after that, yet the declines of eels continued or recruitment remained
low. Possible exceptions may be the continued spread and presence
of the A. crassus parasite (Barse and Secor, 1999; Kirk, 2003, Jakob
et al., 2009a; Marohn et al., 2013), the sudden increase in dam
construction in North Africa (Kettle et al., 2011), the inputs of new types
of contaminants or the persistence of contaminants in the sediments
of eel habitats (Geeraerts and Belpaire, 2010). The massive loss of eel
habitat area from dam construction may have reduced overall
population sizes of these species causing recruitment reductions to areas
at the margins of species ranges, such as the St. Lawrence River
system for the American eel (Casselman, 2003) or the North Sea
and Baltic Sea for the European eel (Dekker, 1998). In addition,
Kettle et al. (2011) suggest that the loss of a large proportion of
European eel production from the Iberian Peninsula and North
Africa and reductions in rainfall may have been important factors
affecting declines, since eels living there have the shortest migration
distances, and thus may have greater success reaching the spawning
area. Because anthropogenic effects may have been mostly
decreasing or stable in recent decades in Europe, North America, and some
parts of East Asia, it seems unlikely that those factors could be
regulating interannual fluctuations in recruitment that have been
observed both before and after the declines began, which suggests
environmental factors also influence recruitment.
Regime shifts and eel recruitment
Sudden ocean-atmosphere changes in a particular region, or regime
shifts, have increasingly been recognized to affect the population
dynamics of marine fish through changes in biological oceanography
(Hare and Mantua, 2000; Weijerman et al., 2005; Drinkwater, 2006;
Lehodey et al., 2006; Overland et al., 2010). This has also been
hypothesized to be the case for anguillid eels because they spawn
in offshore oceanic areas and their larvae feed and grow in the
ocean before recruiting to continental waters (Castonguay et al.,
1994b; Knights, 2003; Miller et al., 2009). Changes in the North
Atlantic Oscillation (NAO; Figure 4A) have occurred (Hurrell,
1995; Drinkwater et al., 2003) and statistical correlations between
recruitment indices of the European eel (Knights, 2003; Friedland
et al., 2007; Kettle et al., 2008; Arribas et al., 2012) or yellow and
silver eel catches (Kettle et al., 2008; Durif et al., 2011) and the
NAO index have been observed.
The larvae of anguillid eels, called leptocephali, appear to
primarily feed on marine snow materials (Otake et al., 1993;
Mochioka and Iwamizu, 1996; Miller et al., 2011, 2013), and the
production of marine snow is linked to the primary productivity
of phytoplankton (Alldredge and Silver, 1988; Alldredge and
Jackson, 1995; Turner, 2002). Therefore, changes in primary
productivity could influence the survival or growth rates of anguillid
leptocephali (Knights, 2003). Correlations between sea surface
temperature as a proxy of productivity and glass eel recruitment,
especially for the European eel but also for the American and Japanese eel
(Bonhommeau et al., 2008a, b; Arribas et al., 2012) support this
concept. Warming of the ocean surface layer appears to result in
reductions in productivity (Behrenfeld et al., 2006; Boyce et al.,
2010) and therefore also may reduce marine snow production.
Warming of surface waters has occurred in the Sargasso Sea and
western North Pacific regions during the period of the recruitment
declines (Levitus et al., 2000; Polyakov et al., 2005; Bonhommeau
et al., 2008a, b; Durif et al., 2011) and global surface and ocean
temperatures have also increased since the 1970s (Figure 4C; Trenberth
and Fasullo, 2013). Changes in mixed layer depth or the actions of
eddies, fronts, and winds are also thought to influence productivity
(Knights, 2003; Palter et al., 2005) and have been examined in
relation to biological characteristics in the Sargasso Sea (Richardson
et al., 2014) and recruitment fluctuations (Friedland et al., 2007).
Other types of oceanic changes that are potentially linked to
ocean-atmosphere factors also may have occurred such as shifts
in the latitudes of fronts (Kimura et al., 2001; Kimura and
Tsukamoto, 2006; Friedland et al., 2007), or the latitudes of
bifurcation of currents (Kim et al., 2007; Zenimoto et al., 2009), which have
the potential to influence eel recruitment levels by disrupting larval
transport pathways. A shift in current patterns in the western
Sargasso Sea has been hypothesized to be associated with the
onset of eel declines in the Atlantic (Baltazar-Soares et al., 2014).
Changes to the Gulf Stream system were also considered as possibly
affecting recruitment of the Atlantic eels (Castonguay et al., 1994b),
and changes in the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic gyre occur
that appear linked to the NAO (Curry and McCartney, 2001).
However, Bonhommeau et al. (2008a) did not find any statistical
evidence of a correlation between recruitment and gyre circulation
and Gulf Stream-related parameters (Gulf Stream Index and
Transport Index) for the European eel. Kettle et al. (2008) suggested
that the NAO might influence the numbers of silver eels migrating to
the spawning area through climatic factors such as rainfall, with
decreases in rainfall reducing the number of migrating eels.
In addition to the statistical correlations that have been found
between interannual fluctuations in eel indices and ocean-atmosphere
parameters, regime shifts occurred at about the same time as the
northern hemisphere eels began to decline. Both the NAO and
Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) shifted phases in the 1970s and
1980s (Figure 4A and B; Hurrell, 1995; Hare and Mantua, 2000;
Lehodey et al., 2006; Overland et al., 2010). In the Sargasso Sea,
during low NAO index periods such as before the eel declines
began, storm tracks shift to the south and cold air flows more
frequently off North America, helping to cool surface waters, increase
mixed layer depths, and cause increased nutrient levels (Drinkwater
et al., 2003). In the western Pacific where the Japanese eel has its
spawning and recruitment areas, it is more difficult to establish
direct links with the PDO (Tzeng et al., 2012), whose effects are
more related to the northeastern Pacific (Hare and Mantua, 2000;
Lehodey et al., 2006; Overland et al., 2010). Changes in productivity
have been observed in the western side of the North Pacific gyre
though (Watanabe et al., 2005; Ishida et al., 2009), and shifts in
the El Nin˜o Southern Oscillation Index (ENSO) have been
hypothesized to influence recruitment of the Japanese eel (Kimura et al.,
2001). The shifts that occurred in the NAO and PDO in the 1970s
were accompanied by increases in global temperatures that included
ocean surface temperature increases (Figure 4C; Levitus et al., 2000;
Polyakov et al., 2005; Trenberth and Fasullo, 2013), and this could
reduce ocean productivity and the feeding success of eel larvae as
proposed by Knights (2003) and Bonhommeau et al., (2008a,b).
Another change in the ocean that could have been important for
eels is that Karl et al. (2001) proposed there was a “photosynthetic
population domain shift” in the North Pacific gyre, which occurred
at about the time that the eel declines began. There appeared to have
been a shift to a prevalence of cyanobacteria and a reduction of diatoms
or other phytoplankton that was driven by the globally widespread and
abundant photosynthetic cyanobacterium Prochlorococcus (Partensky
et al., 1999; Flombaum et al., 2013). Its abundance increased in the
North Pacific gyre after 1976 (Karl et al., 2001). There is also another
common species of cyanobacteria species, Synechococcus, which
co-occurs with Prochlorococcus worldwide, but is typically less
abundant, with an inverse pattern of abundance fluctuations (Campbell
et al., 1994; Cavender-Bares et al., 2001; DuRand et al., 2001; Casey
et al., 2013; Flombaum et al., 2013; Pasulka et al., 2013). It appears
that when nutrient levels are high, diatoms or other eurkaryotic
phytoplankton thrive and blooms occur, but when nutrients are low,
Prochlorococcus is abundant, producing the tendency for an inverse
relationship between the abundance of the two types of primary
producers in both the Pacific and Atlantic oceans (Figure 5; Partensky et al.,
1999; Karl et al., 2001; Rousseaux and Gregg, 2012; Casey et al., 2013).
This may be important for eels because it is phytoplankton such
as diatoms that are thought to be important for producing exudates
that become transparent exopolymer particles (TEPs) containing
carbohydrates, which provide the “glue” that facilitates the
aggregation of marine snow (Alldredge and Silver, 1988; Alldredge and
Jackson, 1995; Passow, 2002). Bacteria also release some TEP
(Passow, 2002; Ortega-Retuerta et al., 2010), and cyanobacteria
can release various types of compounds depending on their
habitat, some of which are toxic to other organisms, but also
include carbohydrate and carboxylic acid exudates (De Philippis
and Vincenzini, 1998; Bertilsson et al., 2005; Sychrova´ et al., 2012;
L o´pez-Sandoval et al., 2013). It is unclear though, how important
cyanobacteria may be for releasing exudates that may contribute
to marine snow production. Carbohydrates appear to coat the
outer parts of cyanobacteria (i.e. Synechococcus; Biersmith and
Benner, 1998), so laboratory measurements that found low
percentages of “exudates” from Synechococcus and Prochlorococcus
(Biersmith and Benner, 1998; Bertilsson et al., 2005; L
o´pezSandoval et al., 2013) could be artificially high as a result of the
effect of the filtration process releasing materials from the outer
coating during the experimental measurement processes, which
are not actually exudates.
In the northern Sargasso Sea though, a strong linear relationship
was found between eukaryotic phytoplankton abundance and
particulate organic carbon levels (Durand et al., 2001) and the export of
these particles from the surface layer appears linked to the
abundance of large diatoms (Buesseler, 1998). High concentrations of
TEP has usually been associated with phytoplankton blooms,
especially of diatoms (Passow, 2002), with exudates of TEP
carbohydrates originating in various types of phytoplankton including
dynoflagellates, but to varying degrees (Biersmith and Benner,
1998; De Philippis and Vincenzini, 1998; L o´pez-Sandoval et al.,
2013). Further evaluation of TEP and marine snow production
levels in the open ocean spawning areas of anguillid eels is needed,
as has begun (Kodama et al., 2014), especially for evaluating the
role of Prochlorococcus and Synechococcus, which may contribute
to particulate export in the northern Sargasso Sea, but at lower
levels than eukaryotic phytoplankton (Lomas and Moran, 2011).
It is possible, however, that it is not the cyanobacterial component
that is primarily influencing marine snow production in these
areas, at least when productivity levels are high.
Therefore, if there has been a trend towards generally greater
cyanobacterial abundance and lower diatom or other
phytoplankton abundance in recent decades, this might reduce the amount of
marine snow that is available to leptocephali as food. Some evidence
of this occurring, at least in terms of high cyanobacterial abundance
and low diatom abundance, has been seen in studies in the Sargasso
Sea eel spawning area, where Prochlorococcus was widespread and
abundant, but diatoms were rare (Cavender-Bares et al., 2001;
Riemann et al., 2011). Prochlorococcus is abundant in the central
North Pacific (Campbell et al., 1994; Karl et al., 2001; Pasulka
et al., 2013) and western North Pacific (Flombaum et al., 2013),
but it is difficult to fully evaluate if there has been a shift in the
relative abundance of cyanobacteria such as Prochlorococcus and
diatoms however, since the existence of Prochlorococcus was only
discovered in 1988 (Chisholm et al., 1988), which is after the declines of
the eels began. Prochlorococcus is ubiquitously present in the upper
100 – 200 m from 408N to 408S, and may be the most abundant
photosynthetic organism on earth (Partensky et al., 1999; Flombaum et al.,
2013). However, recent research at the time-series station near
Bermuda (BATS) in the northern part of the Sargasso Sea clearly
documented the shift between high abundance of Prochlorococcus
and eukaryotic phytoplankton, along with higher abundances of
eukaryotic phytoplankton in winters with a negative NAO phase than
those with a positive phase (Figure 5; Casey et al., 2013).
Decreases in phytoplankton production or productivity appear
to have occurred in both the North Pacific and North Atlantic
(Martinez et al., 2009; Boyce et al., 2010) during the periods of eel
declines, and decreases in nutrients, Chl-a, and larger
phytoplankton such as diatoms were reported in the western North Pacific
(Watanabe et al., 2005; Ishida et al., 2009) in the larval development
area of the Japanese eel. However, because of the possibility of a shift
towards cyanobacteria when nutrient levels and productivity are
lower, these reductions in overall productivity (including
cyanobacteria) may not fully reflect the changes in amount of marine snow
that is available to leptocephali. The possibility that there have
been substantial decreases in larger phytoplankton such as
diatoms that contribute to marine snow should be considered,
because this would not be detected in general indices of productivity
that are now known to include the contributions of Prochlorococcus
and Synechococcus, which are abundant when diatoms are at low
levels. Studies that include time series of multiple types of both
prokaryotic and eukaryotic autotrophic organisms such as that of
Pasulka et al. (2013) in combination with evaluations of marine
snow concentrations may provide a better understanding of these
issues in relation to the early survival of eel larvae.
Effect of density-dependent early larval survival?
After it became known that leptocephali feed on marine snow
materials, it was hypothesized that reductions in productivity in the
ocean could reduce larval survival by reducing the food available
to the larvae, and correlations between eel abundance indices and
time series of the NAO index or sea surface temperature have
provided support for this possibility as described above (Knights,
2003; Bonhommeau et al., 2008a, b; Kettle et al., 2008; Arribas
et al., 2012). If there have been reductions in marine snow
production or a shift in the composition of marine snow, this could affect
levels of recruitment each year if density-dependent survival of the
first-feeding early larvae occurs in the spawning area. Small
earlystage larvae might be the most vulnerable to mortality because the
larger leptocephali would have the ability to consume a wider
range of marine snow particle sizes and would have a larger
volume of energy reserves in their bodies to survive until food
could be found. The small recently hatched larvae would require a
relatively small size range of marine snow to ingest, unless they are
able to break up larger particles, and there would theoretically be
many small larvae looking for food at the same time after a spawning
event took place (Figure 6). Although difficult to empirically
establish as a primary mechanism regulating recruitment levels in marine
fish populations, density-dependent survival of the first-feeding or
later larvae as a result of food availability, or the existence of a
“critical period” for first-feeding larvae as first proposed by Hjort (1914)
remain as important hypotheses in fisheries ecology (Anderson,
1988; Myers, 2002; Houde, 2008; Robert et al., 2014). Thus, this
apparently can be considered as a possible factor affecting eel larvae
feeding on marine snow.
Female anguillid eels may be able to spawn millions of eggs at one
time and place due to their high fecundity (Barbin and McCleave,
1997; MacNamara and McCarthy, 2012), so many larvae could
hatch out in the same area. The eggs would develop over several
days before hatching out as preleptocephali, which then start
feeding after they develop eyes and teeth (Miller, 2009). Some
diffusion of the eggs and larvae would occur during the several days of
drifting, but research on the Japanese eel suggests that both eggs
and preleptocephali may become concentrated in a very narrow
depth range at the top of the thermocline (Tsukamoto et al., 2011;
Aoyama et al., 2014). Marine snow likely accumulates at density
gradients within the thermocline (MacIntyre et al., 1995), so these
layers should be good feeding environments for the young larvae.
However, accumulation of the larvae within a narrow layer could
amplify the chance for density-dependent competition for food
particles among the first-feeding larvae (Figure 6). If anguillid eels
form spawning aggregations, that would further contribute to the
potential for high densities of larvae in areas where spawning of
several female eels has occurred. In addition to competition among
different species of anguillid larvae in both of the northern
hemisphere spawning areas (Anguilla anguilla and A. rostrata have
overlapping spawning areas and A. marmorata spawns in an
overlapping region with A. japonica; Kuroki et al., 2009), other species
of anguilliform eels of the mesopelagic eel taxa of Nemichthyidae,
Serrivomeridae, and Eurypharnx pelecanoides also spawn at the
same general places and times as the anguillid eels as evidenced by
collections of their abundant small larvae (Miller and McCleave,
1994) or eggs (Yoshinaga et al., 2011) as depicted in Figure 6. This
might sometimes result in competition for marine snow particles
by the first-feeding larvae of anguillid eels and mesopelagic eels,
which if severe enough, could cause mortality of the larvae. The
depth distributions of small larvae may change soon after successful
feeding begins though, if they exhibit diel vertical migration as they
do in the Sargasso Sea (Castonguay and McCleave, 1987).
A recent study in the Sargasso Sea spawning area of the Atlantic
eels found lower larval abundance of both species of Anguilla during
the spawning season in 2011 compared with the larval abundances
in the same areas and months in 1983 and 1985 (Hanel et al., 2014).
This indicated that the low abundance of larvae (leading to low
recruitment) likely begins within the spawning area and does not
result primarily from low survival of the larger leptocephali
during their drift towards their recruitment areas (Hanel et al.,
2014). A lower number of spawners reaching the spawning area is
one explanation for the low larval abundances, and another is that
reductions in early larval survival have occurred as a result of
reductions in marine snow production. A much lower abundance of the
smallest size class of Nemichthys scolopaceus larvae was observed in
2011, but these were among the most abundant types of leptocephali
during the earlier period (Miller and McCleave, 1994), suggesting
that there was low larval survival of the early stage larvae of both
anguillid eels and N. scolopaceus in 2011 (Hanel et al., 2014).
However, more information is needed to be able to assess if
densitydependent early larval survival is occurring within anguillid eel
spawning areas, if later larval stages are also affected, or if low
numbers are due to reduced numbers of effective spawners.
Possible synergistic effects on eel declines
Examination of the basic timelines of potential anthropogenic
impacts on eels (e.g. Figures 2 and 3) and of the occurrences of
ocean-atmosphere regime shifts (e.g. Figure 4) that could affect
eels suggest that both types of factors could have contributed to
the declines observed in the northern hemisphere anguillid eels
(e.g. Figure 1). Habitat loss, habitat quality reductions, chemical
contamination, parasite introductions, and fishing pressure could
have all built up to the time of the declines, then oceanic regime
shifts could have also occurred at the same time. These changes
could have simultaneously affected their juvenile growth stage
(slower growth due to greater competition for reduced food
resources), the production of silver eels (reduced species ranges
and population sizes, hydropower turbine and pump mortality),
the oceanic migratory or reproductive success of silver eels
(impacts of parasites, contaminants, or viruses) and their larval
survival. It is also possible though that the two types of impacts could
have acted synergistically at times to further amplify the reductions
or fluctuations in recruitment. For example, if population
contractions resulted in a reduction in variation in spawning times of each
species by reducing numbers of eels from the margins of the ranges,
which might tend to spawn in the early or later parts of the spawning
season, then spawning may have been more concentrated within the
middle part of the spawning season. Some suggestion that this might
occur can be implied from the possible loss of contribution to
spawning of the large fecund female eels of the St Lawrence River
(Casselman, 2003), or potential reductions in eels from the northern
(long migration distance) or especially the southern parts (short
migration distance) of the range of the European eel (Kettle et al.,
2011). If this occurred, it might result in a higher percentage of
spawning occurring within a more limited period of the spawning
season, when there could be higher levels of density-dependent
mortality compared with during times with less spawning activity.
If fewer eels spawn during early or later spawning periods when
there might be lower levels of density-dependent early survival,
then a loss of these eels from the population could have had a
proportionally higher influence on recruitment reductions than the loss
of eels from central parts of the ranges. More detailed evaluations of
each aspect of this tentative hypothesis will be needed however,
before it can be considered to have any validity.
There seems to have been slight increases in recruitment
observed for these species in the last few years as reported for the
European eel (Figure 1), which could be related to management
actions resulting in increased spawner escapement (ICES, 2013,
2014). There may also have been shifts in oceanic conditions such
as those related to the NAO and PDO returning to negative phases
(Figure 4A and C) along with a slowdown in global surface
temperature increases in recent years (Figure 4C; Li et al., 2013; Trenberth
and Fasullo, 2013), with the NAO reaching one of its lowest levels
on record in 2010 (Taws et al., 2011). These might have facilitated
increased marine snow production through the mechanisms
described above, resulting in greater larval survival and slight
increases in recruitment. So it seems possible that both
anthropogenic and environmental factors have the potential to be
contributing to recent recruitment increases.
Despite uncertainty in linking the declines of the recruitment of
northern hemisphere anguillid eels to any one specific cause, it seems
possible that a variety of factors came together at about the same
time to cause the drastic declines that were observed. Anthropogenic
changes to the habitats used by yellow eels built up to a climax
corresponding to the times of the declines, which likely reduced
the production and health of silver eels, then for the Atlantic eels
the swimbladder parasite A. crassus was introduced. Oceanic regime
shifts also occurred simultaneously that might have resulted in
reductions of larval survival. Synergistic effects resulting from species range
contractions and a loss of silver eels reaching the spawning areas during
times when there would be a lower effect of possible
densitydependent early larval survival might also have occurred. Regardless
of the exact contributions of each factor to the eel declines, these
species experienced a wide range of potentially serious impacts
building up to or occurring at the same time. The detailed effects of each
type of impact will require continued evaluation in future years as
the fate of anguillid eels unfolds around the world.
Handling editor: Caroline Durif
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