Green urchin demography in a subartic ecosystem : patterns and processes

Authors: Narvaez Diaz, Carla
Advisor: Johnson, Ladd ErikSainte-Marie, Bernard
Abstract: In North Atlantic nearshore environments, high densities of the green urchin Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis have led to the decimation of kelp beds and created extensive barren grounds with reduced biodiversity and ecosystem services. However, green urchins have a high commercial value, and there is a growing interest in aquaculture farming, but unfortunately, their extraction is a classic example of a boom - and - bust fishery. Correct management of urchin populations could thus help create a better equilibrium bet ween urchin populations and kelp beds, allowing the kelp to re-colonize places where it has been completely grazed by urchins and increasing the quality of urchins for export. This thesis collects information about the underlying ecological interactions and environmental factors that affect urchin demography at different spatial scales in the Saint Lawrence Estuary and Gulf (SLEG, Canada). In the SLEG there is no control of urchin populations by the usual means (i.e., predation, mass mortality and harvest), so subtidal environments have been dominated by urchin barrens for decades. An extensive survey across different spatial scales (i.e., region, depth, and site) revealed high variability in urchin population structure (i.e., size - frequency, abundance, and biomass). Density and biomass were among the highest recorded for this species, and kelp beds were limited to exposed shallow sites. Field-based mesocosm and behavioural experiments showed that size-asymmetric intraspecific competition may have an important role in structuring these populations by reducing the growth rate and gonad production of small urchins, as well as affecting their foraging behaviour. Interestingly, there is an ontogenetic change in the relative importance of the type of competition (i.e., interference and exploitative) as it moves from interference and exploitative in small urchins to only exploitative in medium urchins. Finally, we evaluated the accuracy of sclerochronology, a technique used to estimate urchin age that involves counting skeletal growth bands. Under laboratory conditions, several environmental stressors (e.g., food limitation, low salinity periods, water temperature) can induce the deposition of additional growth bands, and band deposition varies among different skeletal components. Moreover, a literature review showed that despite the common use of sclerochronology, only half of the studies that have used it have attempted to validate its basic assumptions, and of those, the methodology used for the validation attempts were judged inadequate for most studies. Thus, sclerochronology should not be used for aging urchins until it provides consistently accurate and precise interpretations of growth bands. Information collected in population demography studies has an important role in informing ecological applications and improving predictions of urchin population dynamics in a constantly changing world. This thesis greatly furthers our understanding of how individual intrinsic characteristics, ecological interactions and environmental factors interact in the SLEG to shape urchin population demographic processes (i.e., growth rates, mortality) and characteristics (i.e., abundance, age).
Document Type: Thèse de doctorat
Issue Date: 2018
Open Access Date: 26 January 2019
Grantor: Université Laval
Collection:Thèses et mémoires

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