Reproductive rates and survival of young in animal populations figure centrally in generating management and conservation strategies. Model systems suggest that food supply can drive these often highly variable properties, yet for many wild species, quantifying such effects and assessing their implications have been challenging. We used spatially explicit time series of a well-studied marine reef fish (black surfperch Embiotoca jacksoni) and its known prey resources to evaluate the extent to which fluctuations in food supply influenced production of young by adults and survival of young to subadulthood. Our analyses reveal: (i) variable food available to both adults and to their offspring directly produced an order of magnitude variation in the number of young-of-year (YOY) produced per adult and (ii) food available to YOY produced a similar magnitude of variation in their subsequent survival. We also show that such large natural variation in vital rates can significantly alter decision thresholds (biological reference points) important for precautionary management. These findings reveal how knowledge of food resources can improve understanding of population dynamics and reduce risk of overharvest by more accurately identifying periods of low recruitment.

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