Individual responses of seabirds to commercial fisheries revealed using GPS tracking, stable isotopes and vessel monitoring systems
1. The large amount of discards produced by commercial fisheries can have major impacts on marine predator populations: this abundant food may increase populations of some scavengers or decrease others via accidental bycatch. Yet, despite the conservation implications of discard practices, the ecology of individual scavengers is poorly understood. 2. Here, we assess the influence of commercial fisheries’ activity on the foraging behaviour of individual breeding northern gannets Morus bassanus. Using recent developments in stable isotope mixing models (Stable Isotope Analysis in R or SIAR) we estimate individual discard consumption. Using GPS tracking and the Vessel Monitoring System (VMS), we investigate behavioural responses to trawlers. 3. Analysis of conventional diet samples, as well as stable isotope ratios of carbon and nitrogen in blood (plasma and cells), highlight marked individual differences in the proportion of fishery discards in the diet. Individual differences in foraging behaviour revealed by stable isotopes show evidence of both short-term consistency and behavioural flexibility. 4. At-sea path tortuosity of 25 gannets (tracked using GPS loggers) revealed scale-dependent adjustments in response to VMS-derived fishing vessel locations, as well as to sea surface temperature, chlorophyll a concentration and copepod abundance. The results also indicate individual variability in behavioural response to trawlers. 5. Individual differences in the amount of discards estimated from SIAR were negatively correlated with differences in foraging trip length and body condition, indicating potential fitness consequences. 6. Synthesis and applications. The management of commercial fisheries and apex predators is a daunting task. Ultimately, reducing bycatch and removing dependency on discards remain key conservation priorities, but managers should also ensure that scavenging species have sufficient alternative food to meet their energetic needs, to ameliorate potential unforeseen knock-on consequences. The results of Stable Isotope Analysis (SIAR) reveal intra-population differences in discard consumption by gannets; differences that have impacts on foraging effort and body condition. The use of GPS tracking and Vessel Monitoring Systems (VMS) reveal that gannet at-sea behaviour is influenced by fishing vessels, although this also varies among individuals. A combination of SIAR, GPS tracking and VMS can be used to study fishery/scavenger interactions in detail at the individual level, to answer fundamental questions about scavenging behaviour.