A persistent debate in population ecology concerns the relative importance of environmental stochasticity and density dependence in determining variability in adult year-class strength, which contributes to future reproduction as well as potential yield in exploited populations. Apart from the strength of the processes, the timing of density regulation may affect how stochastic variation, for instance through climate, translates into changes in adult abundance. In this study, we develop a life-cycle model for the population dynamics of a large marine fish population, Northeast Arctic cod, to disentangle the effects of density-independent and density-dependent processes on early life-stages, and to quantify the strength of compensatory density dependence in the population. The model incorporates information from scientific surveys and commercial harvest, and dynamically links multiple effects of intrinsic and extrinsic factors on all life-stages, from eggs to spawners. Using a state-space approach we account for observation error and stochasticity in the population dynamics. Our findings highlight the importance of density-dependent survival in juveniles, indicating that this period of the life cycle largely determines the compensatory capacity of the population. Density regulation at the juvenile life-stage dampens the impact of stochastic processes operating earlier in life such as environmental impacts on the production of eggs and climate-dependent survival of larvae. The timing of stochastic versus regulatory processes thus plays a crucial role in determining variability in adult abundance. Quantifying the contribution of environmental stochasticity and compensatory mechanisms in determining population abundance is essential for assessing population responses to climate change and exploitation by humans.
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