Demographic disequilibrium in living nautiloids (Nautilus and Allonautilus): Canary in the coal mines?

Averaged demographic data from previously unfished populations of Nautilus and Allonautilus (Cephalopoda) provide a baseline to determine if a population is undisturbed and in “equilibrium” or is in “disequilibrium” as a result of fishery pressure. Data are available for previously undisturbed local nautiloid populations in Papua New Guinea, Australia, Indonesia, Fiji, Palau, American Samoa, New Caledonia and Vanuatu (total n = 2,669 live-caught, tagged and released animals). The data show that unfished populations average ~75% males and ~74% mature animals. By contrast, unpublished, anecdotal and historical records since 1900 from the heavily fished central Philippines have shown a persistent decline in trap yields and a change in demographics of N. pompilius. By 1979, a sample of fished live-caught animals (n = 353) comprised only ~28% males and ~27% mature animals. Continued uncontrolled trapping caused collapse of the fishery and the shell industry has moved elsewhere, including Indonesia. In addition, we show that estimated rates of population decline are offered by unpublished tag-release records in unfished Palau. These data show that patterns of trap yields and demographic differences between fished and unfished populations in relative age class and sex ratios can indicate disequilibria wrought by fisheries pressure that can render local populations inviable. Given adequate samples (n ≥100 live-caught animals), a threshold of <50% males and mature animals in fished populations should signal the need to initiate curative conservation initiatives. The current trajectory of uncontrolled nautiloid fisheries can only mean trouble and possibly extinction of local populations of this ancient, iconic molluscan lineage.