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WHAT IS ECOLOGICAL STABILITY ? In 2019 I posed this question informally to colleagues, using Twitter, a professional workshop that I lead, and a conference. Respondents on Twitter consisted mostly of ecological scientists, but the workshop included paleontologists, biologists, physicists, applied mathematicians, and an array of social scientists, including sociologists, anthropologists, economists, archaeologists, political scientists, historians and others. And this happened…

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The Grand Banks of Newfoundland.

The Atlantic cod, Gadus morhua, has been the foundation of one of the world’s major fisheries for several centuries, with the Grand Banks off Newfoundland (Fig. 1) being amongst the most productive fisheries in the world. Figure 2 (below) shows the estimated population size of the Atlantic cod on the southern Grand Banks from the years 1959 to 2005 (Power et al., 2010), where G. morhua has historically been the most prominent component of that productive fishery. Cod populations, however, declined across the North Atlantic during the second half of the 20th century, most notably in the northwestern Atlantic. Several factors might have played roles, including warming ocean temperatures and a resurgence of the predatory grey seal across its historic range after implementation of protection from hunting (Neuenhoff et al., 2019). There is little doubt, however, that over-exploitation by commercial fisheries has been one of, if not the most effective driver of the decline. The Grand Banks population initially increased steadily during the monitored period, reaching a maximum in 1966. Thereafter it declined significantly until 1976, after which it appeared to stabilize, before beginning a steady decline in 1985. Fishing mortality of older individuals (> 6 years old) meanwhile fluctuated, peaking in 1975 and again in 1991. Change point analysis, which is used to detect changes in the statistical distribution of data within a time series, suggests that the population underwent significant shifts in 1971, 1985 and 1993. Each time, the mean population sizes of the intervals defined by those shifts descended through transient phases to significantly lower sizes. The first transition, around 1971, was preceded by an interval of highly variable population size, yet those sizes all exceeded population size from 1971 onward. The period from 1975-1985 was characterized by reduced population size and low variability, but another change occurred in 1985, and by 1993 the population size had stabilized at abysmally low numbers, marking the end of the commercially viable fishery.

Estimated population size (connected line) and fishery catch size (red) for the period 1959-2005. Arrows show times of presumed regime shifts, as identified by change point analysis.

It seems reasonable to hypothesize that each interval between the change point transitions represents a stable state or regime of the population, with fishing mortality thus driving or contributing to transitions between multiple alternative states (Fig. 2). The relationship between fishing and population size is relatively straightforward. Initially, an increase of total catch in the late 1960’s followed an increase of population size, but then declined as population size itself began a steep decline in 1967. However, although population size continued to decline, catch size again increased in 1971, coincident with the time marked by the change point analysis as the first transition to a state of smaller population size. Catch size subsequently followed the decline of population size, reaching a minimum during 1978, after which it began to increase again, presumably in response to the relatively “stable” population. Population size increased after 1980, reaching a new maximum in 1985, but then after a sharp increase of catch size, began its decline to the low numbers at the turn of the century.

A phase map (Fig. 3) captures this journey of potential alternative stable states and transitions, and reveals two general types of regime shifts. First, the initial transition to the second state that persisted from the late 1970s to 1985 was likely both precipitated and maintained by fishing pressure. The continued decline of catch size between 1971 and 1978 might have in fact facilitated some recovery of population size. This is the first type of regime shift and the separation of states—an external driver is capable of moving the system between states, and of maintaining the system in at least one of those states. The basic dynamics of this type of regime shift can be understood in terms of external parameters. The second type of shift, however, is less transparent, because it involves intrinsic properties and dynamics of the system. Look closely at the population trajectory from 1995 on, the last transition of the series. Catch size is negligible over a period of ten years, yet there is no sign of population rebound. If, as claimed earlier, population size is driven by catch size, why didn’t the population recover, and what kept it in the final, most recent attractor or state?

Phase map of cod population size, plotting consecutive years against each other. Blue trajectories show intervals of presumed population stability, i.e., stable states. Red trajectories show the pathways of transition between those states.

Neuenhoff, R. D., Swain, D. P., Cox, S. P., McAllister, M. K., Trites, A. W., Walters, C. J., and Ham-mill, M. O. (2019). Continued decline of a collapsed population of Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) due to predation-driven Allee effects. Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences, 76(1):168–184.

Power, D., Morgan, J., Murphy, E., Brattey, J., and Healey, B. (2010). An assessment of the cod stock in NAFO divisions 3NO. Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Organization SCR Doc, 10:42.