Seabird Abstracts

Junk-food in marine ecosystems

Österblom H, Olsson O, Blenckner T & Furness RW (2008) Oikos 117(7):967-977

The abundance and availability of food are critical determinants of reproductive success and population dynamics of marine top predators. However, recent work has indicated that the quality of the food may also be critically important for some marine predators. The 'junk food hypothesis'’was originally suggested as a potential explanation for a dramatic population decline of Stellers Sea Lions Eumetopias jubatus in the Gulf of Alaska. According to the hypothesis, a dietary switch to prey of low energy content led to detrimental effects on the population of sea lions. A number of observations indicate that the hypothesis is relevant for several population parameters. Recent work on piscivorous seabirds has provided substantial evidence indicating the relevance of this hypothesis in food webs in e.g. the North Pacific, the North Sea and the Baltic Sea. The emergence of 'junk-food' in these systems may be coupled to large scale changes in climatologically and oceanographic forcing, although predation, fishing and competition provide additional plausible hypotheses. It may be possible to predict which kinds of animals will be particularly sensitive to food quality: these seem to be species with limited ability to carry food loads, with energetically- expensive foraging behaviour, and with digestive anatomy evolved to minimize mass at the cost of digestive efficiency. This review suggests that the junk-food hypotheses is a highly relevant factor in relation to sustaining ecosystem resilience, and is an important consideration in ecosystem management. Sustaining healthy populations of marine top-predators requires an understanding of the role of food quality, in addition to food abundance and availability.

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