We evaluate a 54-y survey time series for the Delaware Bay oyster beds in New Jersey waters to identify the characteristics of regime shifts in oyster populations and the influence of MSX and Dermo diseases on population stability. Oyster abundance was high during the 1970s through 1985. Oyster abundance was low at the inception of the time series in 1953, remained low through 1969, and has been low since 1985 and very low since 2000. Natural mortality was low in most years prior to the appearance of MSX in 1957. From 1957 through 1966, natural mortality generally remained above 10% annually and twice exceeded 20%. Natural mortality remained well below 15% during the 1970s and into the early 1980s when oyster abundance was continuously high. The largest mortality event in the time series, an MSX epizootic that resulted in the death of 47% of the stock, occurred in 1985. Mortality rose again with the incursion of Dermo in 1990 and has remained above 15% for most years since that time and frequently has exceeded 20%. The primary impact of MSX and Dermo diseases has been to raise natural mortality and ultimately to cause a dispersed stock to retreat into its habitat of refuge in the moderately low salinity reach of the bay. The time series of oyster abundance on the New Jersey oyster beds of Delaware Bay is dominated by two regime shifts, the 1970 abundance increase that was maintained for about 15 y thereafter, and the 1985 abundance decrease that continues through today. These two regime shifts ushered in long-term periods of apparent constancy in population dynamics. The 1985 regime shift was induced by the largest MSX epizootic on record that produced high mortalities throughout a population distributed broadly throughout its habitat range after 15 y of high abundance. A putative new regime commenced circa 2000 as a consequence of a series of Dermo epizootics. Mortalities routinely exceeded 20% of the population annually during this period, with the consequence of a greater degree of stock consolidation than any previous time in the 54-y record. Extreme consolidation of the stock would appear to be a characteristic of the population's response to Dermo disease. The 1970–1984 and post-1985 regimes each were ushered in by a confluence of events unique in the 54-y time series. Each was characterized by a period of relative stability in population abundance. However, the stability in total population abundance belies a more dynamic process of stock redistribution during both time intervals, demonstrating that the appearance of constancy in stock abundance is not necessarily a result of invariant stock dynamics. Rather, the Delaware Bay oyster time series suggests that regime shifts delimit periods during which differential, often offsetting, local trends impart similar abundance levels, and thus constancy at the level of the stock masks substantive changes in local population dynamics potentially fostering future catastrophic changes in population-level attributes. Understanding such regime shifts will likely determine the success of decadal management goals more so than measures designed to influence population abundance.
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Vol. 27 • No. 4