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Research article - Peer-reviewed, 2005

Climate change causing phase transitions of walleye pollock (Theragra chalcogramma) recruitment dynamics

Ciannelli, Lorenzo; Bailey, Kevin; Chan, Kung-Sik; Belgrano, Andrea; Stenseth, Nils Christian


In 1976 the North Pacific climate shifted, resulting in an average increase of the water temperature. In the Gulf of Alaska the climate shift was followed (i.e. early 1980s) by a gradual but dramatic increase in the abundance of groundfish species that typically prey on pre-recruitment stages of walleye pollock. In the present study we used a previously parameterized model to investigate the effect of these climate and biological changes on the recruitment dynamics of walleye pollock in the Gulf of Alaska. Simulations covered the 1970-2000 time frame and emphasized the medium-to-long temporal scale (i.e. about 5-10 years) of environmental variability. Results showed that during periods characterized by high sea surface temperature and high predation on juvenile pollock stages, recruitment variability and magnitude were below average, and recruitment control was delayed to stages older than the 0-group. Opposite dynamics (i.e. high abundance and variability, and early recruitment control) occurred during periods characterized by low temperature and predation. These results are in general agreement with empirical observations, and allowed us to formulate causal explanations for their occurrence. We interpreted the delay of recruitment control and the reduction of variability as an effect of increased constraint on the abundance of post age-0 stages, in turn imposed by high density dependence and predation mortality. On the other hand, low density-dependence and predation favoured post age-0 survival, and allowed for an unconstrained link between larval and recruitment abundance. Our findings demonstrate that the dominant mechanisms of pollock survival change over contrasting climate regimes. Such changes may in turn cause a phase transition of recruitment dynamics with profound implications for the management of the entire stock.


phase transition; regime shift; climate; walleye pollock; Gulf of Alaska; recruitment

Published in

Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences
2005, volume: 272, number: 1573, pages: 1735-1743

Authors' information

Ciannelli, Lorenzo
University of Washington
Bailey, Kevin
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)
Chan, Kung-Sik
University of Iowa
National Center for Genome Resources (NCGR)
Stenseth, Nils Christian
University of Oslo (UiO)

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