Grant to allow oceanographer to study role of herring in food chain

Posted Sept. 22, 2010, at 9:13 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — A $346,000 grant will allow the Gulf of Maine Research Institute at the University of Maine to study the role herring and other small fish play as the food supply for larger animals such as tuna and whales.

The project was one of eight funded this year by the Comparative Analysis of Marine Ecosystem Organization, a program of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the National Science Foundation, according to a UMaine press release issued Wednesday.

Oceanographer Andrew Pershing will lead a research team that will include two additional scientists from UMaine, two from the institute, three from the NOAA and one each from the University of Massachusetts and Ohio State University.

The scientists will compare the physical changes in the Gulf of Maine over three decades, beginning in the 1980s when herring stocks were low. The goal is to evaluate the role of bottom-up changes in physical conditions, such as temperature, and productivity in relation to top-down forces such as fishing in shaping large-scale ecosystem changes, the release said.

“We’ll be using a variety of data sources as well as building models to try to understand these changes,” Pershing said in the release. “In addition to helping uncover the mechanisms driving big changes in systems like the Gulf of Maine, our work will help improve forecasts of fisheries in the Gulf [of Maine].”

Previous studies detailed a series of changes that occurred in the 1990s, he said. They included a dramatic increase in herring and a decrease in their primary prey — large zooplankton. The decline in large zooplankton, especially the copepod, a group of small crustaceans, led to leaner herring and the births of fewer right whale calves. The leaner herring then led to bluefin tuna of lesser value.

Pershing and other researchers hope to better understand how these trade-offs between fish abundance and fish weight are linked in fishery ecosystems, according to the press release.

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