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Keywords:

  • Bycatch;
  • community structure;
  • elasmobranchs;
  • fisheries;
  • Gulf of Mexico;
  • predation release;
  • rays;
  • sharks;
  • shrimp trawling;
  • top-down effects

Abstract

Globally, bycatch in tropical/subtropical shrimp trawl and longline fisheries is threatening many marine species. Here we examine the joint effects of increased mortality caused by shrimp trawling bycatch, and reduced predation caused by losses of large sharks because of longline fishing. Research surveys in the Gulf of Mexico (1972–2002) demonstrated precipitous declines in shallow water coastal elasmobranchs where shrimping effort was highest (bonnethead 96%, Bancroft's numbfish (lesser electric ray) 98%, smooth butterfly ray > 99%) and consistent increases in deeper water elasmobranchs (Atlantic angel shark, smooth dogfish). These increases are the first empirical support for predation release caused by the loss of large sharks, which have been theorized to structure tropical/subtropical marine ecosystems. Bycatch of elasmobranchs in shrimp trawls is a critical conservation concern which is not solved by present mitigation measures; similar loss of elasmobranchs is expected to be occurring in tropical/subtropical regions worldwide where ever intensive shrimp trawling occurs.