Non-indigenous predators threaten ecosystem engineers: Interactive effects of green crab and oyster size on American oyster mortality
Non-indigenous green crabs (Carcinus maenas) are emerging as important predators of autogenic engineers like American oysters (Crassostrea virginica) throughout the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. To document the spreading distribution of green crabs, we carried out surveys in seven sites of Prince Edward Island during three fall seasons. To assess the potential impact of green crabs on oyster mortality in relation to predator and prey size, we conducted multiple predator-prey manipulations in the field and laboratory. The surveys confirmed an ongoing green crab spread into new productive oyster habitats while rapidly increasing in numbers in areas where crabs had established already. The experiments measured mortality rates on four sizes of oysters exposed to three sizes of crab, and lasted 3–5 days. The outcomes of experiments conducted in Vexar® bags, laboratory tanks and field cages were consistent and were heavily dependent on both crab size and oyster size: while little predation occurred on large oysters, large and medium green crabs preyed heavily on small sizes. Oysters reached a refuge within the 35–55 mm shell length range; below that range, oysters suffered high mortality due to green crab predation and thus require management measures to enhance their survival. These results are most directly applicable to aquaculture operations and restoration initiatives but have implications for oyster sustainability.