Preprints
https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-2021-55
https://doi.org/10.5194/bg-2021-55

  08 Apr 2021

08 Apr 2021

Review status: a revised version of this preprint is currently under review for the journal BG.

Enhanced chlorophyll-a concentration in the wake of Sable Island, eastern Canada, revealed by two decades of satellite observations: a response to grey seal population dynamics?

Emmanuel Devred, Andrea Hilborn, and Cornelia den Heyer Emmanuel Devred et al.
  • Bedford Institute of Oceanography, 1 Challenger Drive, Dartmouth, NS, B2Y 4A2, Canada

Abstract. Elevated surface chlorophyll-a concentration, an index of phytoplankton biomass, has been previously observed and documented by remote sensing in the waters to the southwest of Sable Island (SI) on the Scotian Shelf in eastern Canada. Here, we present a detailed analysis of this phenomenon using a 20-year time series of satellite-derived chlorophyll-a concentration (chl-a), paired with information on the particle backscattering coefficient at 443 nm (bbp(443)) and the detritus/gelbstoff absorption coefficient at 443 nm (adg(443) ) in an attempt to explain the possible mechanisms that lead to the increase in surface biomass in the surroundings of SI. We compared the seasonal cycle, climatology and trends of surface waters near SI to two control regions located both upstream and downstream of the island, away from terrigenous inputs. Application of the self-organizing maps approach (SOMs) to the time series of satellite-derived chl-a over the Scotian Shelf revealed the annual spatio-temporal patterns around SI and, in particular, persistently high phytoplankton biomass during winter and spring in the leeward side of SI, a phenomenon that is not observed in the control boxes. Time series analysis of the satellite archive evidenced a long-term increase in chl-a and adg(443), and a long-term decrease in bbp(443) in all regions. In the close vicinity of SI, the increase of chl-a and adg(443) during the winter months occurred at a rate twice that of the ones observed in the control boxes. In addition to the increase of the chl-a and adg(443) within the plume southward of SI, the surface area of the plume itself has also expanded by a factor of five over the last 20 years. While the island mass effect (IME) is certainly contributing to the enhanced biomass around SI, we hypothesize that the large increase in chl-a over the last 20 years is due to an injection of nutrients by the island’s grey seal colony, which has increased by about 300 % over the last twenty years. The contribution of nutrients from seals may sustain high phytoplankton biomass at a time of year when it is usually low. A conceptual model was developed to describe the annual variation of seal abundance on SI and estimate the standing stock of chl-a concentration that can be sustained by the release of nitrogen. Comparison between satellite observations and model simulations showed a very good agreement between the seal population increase on SI during the breeding season and the phytoplankton biomass increase during the winter. In addition, the 20-year satellite-derived trend in chlorophyll-a concentration showed a good agreement with the increasing trend in seal population on SI during the same time period. The satellite data analysis supports the concept of top-down control of marine mammals over lower trophic levels through a fertilisation mechanism, although these results could not be confirmed without in situ measurements for ground truthing. Our findings challenge the idea that the IME is restricted to islands with strong bathymetric slope located in oligotrophic waters of mid-latitudes and tropics, and demonstrate that enhanced marine production can occur in other oceanic regions, with potentially substantial implications for conservation and fisheries.

Emmanuel Devred et al.

Status: final response (author comments only)

Comment types: AC – author | RC – referee | CC – community | EC – editor | CEC – chief editor | : Report abuse
  • RC1: 'Comment on bg-2021-55', Anonymous Referee #1, 15 May 2021
    • AC1: 'Reply on RC1', Emmanuel Devred, 14 Jul 2021
  • RC2: 'Comment on bg-2021-55', Anonymous Referee #2, 23 May 2021
    • AC2: 'Reply on RC2', Emmanuel Devred, 14 Jul 2021

Emmanuel Devred et al.

Emmanuel Devred et al.

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Short summary
A plume of high primary productivity around Sable Island (SI), eastern Canada, has increased in magnitude and surface area over the last twenty years as shown by satellite ocean color. At the same time, hauling of grey seals on SI increased from 100,000 to 360,000 individuals during the winter. Nitrogen fertilization by seal excretion explains the seasonal cycle and trends of phytoplankton biomass. The results highlight the positive feedback of marine mammal conservation on the marine ecosystem.
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