Species- and size-related patterns in stable isotopes and mercury concentrations in fish help refine marine ecosystem indicators and provide evidence for distinct management units for hake in the Northeast Atlantic

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Recent European environmental policies argue for the development of indicators of the ecological status of ecosystems that are easy to implement and powerful enough to detect changes quickly. For instance, some indicators that are currently proposed for monitoring foodweb structure and functioning are based on the size of organisms, using size as a proxy for trophic level. However, these indicators do not necessarily accurately reflect the underlying trophic structure and dynamics to follow. Ecological tracers (i.e. chemical parameters measured in consumer tissues to infer the trophic ecology of organisms) may serve as complementary indicators of trophic level, and may also help distinguish different populations of a species when more commonly used methods (e.g. genetic, age determination) present their own limitations. Here, we analysed the potential of muscle δ13C and δ15N values and of muscle mercury (Hg) concentrations to depict size-related trophic habits of different fish species. We expected that intra- and interspecific variation in these ecological tracers could be helpful in refining currently proposed indicators of marine ecosystems, and also help in discriminating management unitsfor some species. Four fish species were selected for their economical and/or ecological importance in the Bay of Biscay (Northeast Atlantic): whiting Merlangius merlangus, European hake Merluccius merluccius, Atlantic horse mackerel Trachurus trachurus and anglerfish Lophius piscatorius. Muscle δ13C and δ15N values segregated the species and enabled us to discriminate species-specific feeding strategies with increasing size of individuals. Fish body size was not always linearly correlated with δ15N or trophic level. In contrast, Hg concentrations and size-related Hg patterns were more similar from species to species. Interestingly, muscle δ15N values together with Hg concentrations segregated the two putative stocks of European hake within the Bay of Biscay. Hence, we propose the combined use of ecological tracers as a promising method for accurately assigning a consumer to a trophic guild, investigating Hg trophodynamics in foodwebs, and helping discriminate distinct ecological populations within a species when defining management units.

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