Selective harvesting is acknowledged as a serious concern in efforts to conserve wild animal populations. In fisheries, most studies have focused on gradual and directional changes in the life-history traits of target species. While such changes represent the ultimate response of harvested animals, it is also well known that the life history of target species plastically alters with harvesting. However, research on the adaptive significance of these types of condition-dependent changes has been limited.
We explored the adaptive significance of annual changes in the age at sex-change of the protandrous (male-first) hermaphroditic shrimp and examined how selective harvesting affects life-history variation, by conducting field observations across 13 years and a controlled laboratory experiment. In addition, we considered whether plastic responses by the shrimp would be favourable, negligible or negative with respect to the conservation of fishery resources.
The age at sex-change and the population structure of the shrimp fluctuated between years during the study period. The results of the field observations and laboratory experiment both indicated that the shrimp could plastically change the timing of sex-change in accordance with the age structure of the population. These findings provide the first concrete evidence of adult sex ratio adjustment by pandalid shrimp, a group that has been treated as a model in the sex allocation theory.
The sex ratio adjustment by the shrimp did not always seem to be sufficient, however, as the supplement of females is restricted by their annual somatic growth rate. In addition, adjusted sex ratios are further skewed by the unintentional female-selectivity of fishing activity prior to the breeding season, indicating that the occurrence of males that have postponed sex-change causes sex ratio adjustment to become unfavourable.
We conclude that the plastic responses of harvested animals in selective fishing environments must be considered in efforts to conserve wild animal resources, because such responses can become maladaptive.