VARIABILITY IN THE DIET OF HARBOR PORPOISES (PHOCOENA PHOCOENA) IN SCOTTISH WATERS 1992–2003

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Abstract

Interannual, seasonal, and regional variation in the diet of porpoises, Phocoena phocoena, in Scottish (UK) waters was studied using stomach contents of animals stranded between 1992 and 2003. Most samples came from the east coast (including many porpoises killed by bottlenose dolphins), with smaller numbers from the west coast and from Shetland. The most important prey types, in terms of contribution by number and mass, were whiting (Merlangius merlangus) and sand eels (Ammodytidae). Multivariate analysis confirmed the existence of regional, seasonal, and interannual variation in diet, as well as differences (i. e., biases) related to cause of death. These differences were further explored using univariate analyses. Sand eels were more important in the summer months (quarters 2 and 3) and on the east coast, whereas gadids were more important in winter and in the Shetland area. Some, but not all, observed trends in the numerical importance and size of prey taken were consistent with trends in abundance and size of fish taken during research trawl surveys. There was some evidence that porpoises <1 yr old took more gobies (Gobiidae) and shrimps than did older porpoises. Clupeids (herring Clupea harengus and sprat Sprattus sprattus) formed a relatively small proportion of the diet, but their importance varied from year to year. Although possible methodological biases prevent firm conclusions, it appears that the importance of clupeids in porpoise diet may have decreased since the 1960s, mirroring the decline in North Sea herring abundance. The recovery of the North Sea herring stock in recent years is not as yet reflected in porpoise diet.

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