Differences in diet of Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) at five seasonal feeding grounds on the New England continental shelf


Chase, Bradford C.
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The stomachs of 819 Atlantic bluefin tuna (Thunnus thynnus) sampled from 1988 to 1992 were analyzed to compare dietary differences among five feeding grounds on the New England continental shelf (Jeffreys Ledge, Stellwagen Bank, Cape Cod Bay, Great South Channel, and South of Martha’s Vineyard) where a majority of the U.S. Atlantic commercial catch occurs. Spatial variation in prey was expected to be a primary influence on bluefin tuna distribution during seasonal feeding migrations. Sand lance (Ammodytes spp.), Atlantic herring (Clupea harengus), Atlantic mackerel (Scomber scombrus), squid (Cephalopoda), and bluefish (Pomatomus saltatrix) were the top prey in terms of frequency of occurrence and percent prey weight for all areas combined. Prey composition was uncorrelated between study areas, with the exception of a significant association between Stellwagen Bank and Great South Channel, where sand lance and Atlantic herring occurred most frequently. Mean stomach-contents biomass varied significantly for all study areas, except for Great South Channel and Cape Cod Bay. Jeffreys Ledge had the highest mean stomach-contents biomass (2.0 kg) among the four Gulf of Maine areas and Cape Cod Bay had the lowest (0.4 kg). Diet at four of the five areas was dominated by one or two small pelagic prey and several other pelagic prey made minor contributions. In contrast, half of the prey species found in the Cape Cod Bay diet were demersal species, including the frequent occurrence of the sessile fig sponge (Suberites ficus). Prey size selection was consistent over a wide range of bluefin length. Age 2–4 sand lance and Atlantic herring and age 0–1 squid and Atlantic mackerel were common prey for all sizes of bluefin tuna. This is the first study to compare diet composition of western Atlantic bluefin tuna among discrete feeding grounds during their seasonal migration to the New England continental shelf and to evaluate predator-prey size relationships. Previous studies have not found a common occurrence of demersal species or a predominance of Atlantic herring in the diet of bluefin tuna.