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Keywords:

  • ecosystem model;
  • predation;
  • harp seal;
  • Pagophilus groenlandicus;
  • gray seal;
  • Halichoerus grypus;
  • harbor seal;
  • Phoca vitulina;
  • hooded seal;
  • Cystophora cristata;
  • cetaceans;
  • predation;
  • Gulf of St. Lawrence;
  • food web

Abstract

The trophic role of apex predators was evaluated in the northern Gulf of St. Lawrence ecosystem. An Ecopath model was developed for the period 1985–1987 prior to the collapse of commercially exploited demersal fish stocks in this area. Marine mammal trophic levels were estimated by the model at 4.1 for cetaceans, 4.4 for harp seals (Pagophilus groenlandicus), 4.7 for hooded seals (Cystophora cristata), 4.5 for gray seals (Halichoerus grypus), and 4.3 for harbor seals (Phoca vitulina). Harp seals were the third most important predator on vertebrate prey following large Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and redfish (Sebastes spp.). Different seal species preyed on different levels of the food chain. Harp seals preyed on most trophic groups, whereas larger seals, such as gray seals and hooded seals, mainly consumed higher trophic levels. The model suggested that apex predators had a negative effect on their dominant prey, the higher trophic level fish, but an indirect positive feedback on the prey of their preferred prey, mainly American plaice (Hippoglossoides platessoides), flounders, skates, and benthic invertebrates. Our results suggest that both marine mammals and fisheries had an impact on the trophic structure.