Predicting shorebird mortality and population size under different regimes of shellfishery management.


Human interests often conflict with those of wildlife. In the coastal zone humans often exploit shellfish populations that would otherwise provide food for populations of shorebirds (Charadrii). There has been considerable debate on the consequences of shellfishing for the survival of shorebirds, and conversely the effects of shorebird predation on the shellfish stocks remaining for human exploitation. Until now, it has been difficult to determine the impact of current shellfishery practices on birds or to investigate how possible alternative policies would affect their survival and numbers. One long-running contentious issue has been how to manage mussel Mytilus edulis and cockle Cerastoderma edule shellfisheries in a way that has least effect on a co-dependent shorebird, the oystercatcher Haematopus ostralegus, which also consumes these shellfish. This study used a behaviour-based model to explore the effects that the present-day management regimes of a mussel (Exe estuary, UK) and a cockle (Burry inlet, UK) fishery have on the survival and numbers of overwintering oystercatchers. It also explored how alternative regimes might affect the birds. The model includes depletion and disturbance as 2 possibly detrimental effects of shellfishing and some of the longer-term effects on shellfish stocks. Importantly, model birds respond to shellfishing in the same ways as real birds. They increase the time spent feeding at low tide and feed in fields and upshore areas at other times. When shellfishing removes the larger prey, birds eat more smaller prey. The results suggest that, currently, neither shellfishery causes oystercatcher mortality to be higher than it would otherwise be in the absence of shellfishing; at present intensities, shellfishing does not significantly affect the birds. However, they also show that changes in management practices, such as increasing fishing effort, reducing the minimum size of shellfish collected or increasing the daily quota, can greatly affect oystercatcher mortality and population size, and that the detrimental effect of shellfishing can be greatly increased by periods of cold weather or when prey are unusually scarce. By providing quantitative predictions of bird survival and numbers of a range of alternative shellfishery management regimes, the model can guide management policy in these and other estuaries.

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