Increased numbers of benthic predators, especially crabs, have been proposed as a factor contributing to the decline of hard clams (Mercenaria mercenaria Linnaeus, 1758) in Great South Bay, NY. The long-term trend in benthic predators in this system was examined using observations on the distribution and abundance of predators that have been collected by the Town of Islip, NY as part of an annual survey of hard clam populations. The survey began in 1978 and extends to the present and provides concurrent observations of habitat (sediment type, and presence/absence of eelgrass), and hard clam size-frequency distribution and abundance. Predator type and abundance were reported from 1978 to 1981 and 1991 to 2003, which represents one of the most comprehensive benthic predator data sets currently available for any estuarine system. The annual averages of predator abundance in the survey area primarily show interannual fluctuations in abundance. Xanthid crabs (mud crabs, primarily Dispanopeus sayi Smith, 1869) were the numerically dominant predator in the system; blue crabs (Callinectes sapidus Rathbun, 1895) appeared in the late 1990s. Hard clam abundance has declined by 44% since the early 1990s. An Empirical Orthogonal Function (EOF) Analysis of the predator and hard clam data sets showed that fluctuations in predator abundance are: 1) mostly in phase over the survey region and 2) dominated by year-to-year fluctuations in abundance. The EOF results for the hard clams show that hard clam abundance fluctuations are: 1) in phase over the survey region and 2) dominated by a decreasing trend in abundance over the time series. The primary EOF modes essentially were uncoupled, which implies no strong predator-prey interactions between the predators and hard clams. By inference, increasing predator abundance does not appear to be a primary factor producing the long-term decline in hard clam populations. Predation pressure per recruit may still have increased because of declining hard clam population abundance and the concomitant decline in recruitment.
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Vol. 26 • No. 4