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Fishing for lobsters indirectly increases epidemics in sea urchins


Two ecological paradigms, the trophic cascade and the host-density threshold in disease, interact in the kelp-forest ecosystem to structure the community. To investigate what happens when a trophic cascade pushes a host population over a host-threshold density, I analyzed a 20-year data set of kelp forest communities at 16 sites in the region of the Channel Islands National Park, California, USA. Historically, lobsters, and perhaps other predators, kept urchin populations at low levels and kelp forests developed a community-level trophic cascade. In geographic areas where the main predators on urchins were fished, urchin populations increased to the extent that they overgrazed algae and starvation eventually limited urchin-population growth. Despite the limitation of urchin population size by food availability, urchin densities, at times, well exceeded the host-density threshold for epidemics. An urchin-specific bacterial disease entered the region after 1992 and acted as a density-dependent mortality source. Dense populations were more likely to experience epidemics and suffer higher mortality. Disease did not reduce the urchin population at a site to the density that predators previously did. Therefore, disease did not fully replace predators in the trophic cascade. These results indicate how fishing top predators can indirectly favor disease transmission in prey populations.

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