Fewer but not smaller schools in declining fish and krill populations

A.S. Brierley, M.J. Cox

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

30 Citations (Scopus)


Many pelagic species (species that live in the water column), including herring and krill, aggregate to form schools, shoals, or swarms (hereafter simply "schools," although the words are not synonyms). Schools provide benefits to individual members, including locomotory economy [1] and protection from predators that prey on individuals [2], but paradoxically make schooling species energetically viable and commercially attractive targets for predators of groups [3] and for fishers. Large schools are easier to find and yield greater prey/catch than small schools, and there is a requirement from fields as diverse as theoretical ecology and fisheries management to understand whether and how aggregation sizes change with changing population size. We collated data from vertical echosounder surveys of taxonomically diverse pelagic stocks from geographically diverse ecosystems [4-6]. The data contain common significant positive linear stock-biomass to school-number relationships. They show that the numbers of schools in the stocks change with changing stock biomass and suggest that the distributions of school sizes do not change with stock biomass. New data that we collected using a multibeam sonar [7], which can image entire schools, contained the same stock-biomass to school-number relationship and confirm that the distribution of school sizes is not related to changing stock size: put simply, as stocks decline, individuals are distributed among fewer schools, not smaller schools. Since school characteristics affect catchability (the ease or difficulty with which fishers can capture target species) [8] and availability of prey to predators [3], our findings have commercial and ecological implications, particularly within the aspirational framework of ecosystem-based management of marine systems [9, 10].
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)75-79
Number of pages5
JournalCurrent Biology
Issue number1
Early online date26 Nov 2014
Publication statusPublished - 5 Jan 2015


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