Aquatic habitats are subject to multifactorial changes including global warming, invasive species colonisation, modification of organic and micro-pollutant discharge and, for large rivers in Europe, drastic physical modification (e.g. channelisation, impoundments). The Meuse River in Belgium is one of these multi-stressed environments, in which recent decreases of fish populations were observed, with the loss of 90% of Roach Rutilus rutilus biomass in only a few years. In the light of this fish stock collapse, diet modification and local population evolution of a key avian predator, the Great Cormorant Phalacrocorax carbo, were examined. The diet composition and daily consumption rates of the Great Cormorants feeding in the river were largely similar to that seen before the fish population collapsed. Numbers of wintering Great Cormorants decreased by 90%, as did Roach numbers, and thus the predation pressure was adjusted to the decreased fish availability. The number of night-roosts and locations remained unchanged and no redistribution to adjacent habitats was observed at the regional scale. We suggest a bottom-up chain of responses where a fish collapse forced a reduction in Cormorant numbers, being the main piscivorous avian predator, rather than a modification of Cormorant prey composition and/or a local redistribution to adjacent wetlands (top-down). The factors that govern the establishment of a small and productive breeding population remain to be explained, but we hypothesise that the start of breeding could well have been alleviated by the large decrease in number of wintering birds.
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Vol. 109 • No. 3