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Trawl disturbance on benthic communities: chronic effects and experimental predictions

Hinz, Hilmar, Prieto, Virginia, Kaiser, Michel J.
Ecological applications 2009 v.19 no.3 pp. 761-773
Nephrops norvegicus, aquatic food webs, benthic organisms, biomass, community structure, fauna, fisheries, fisheries management, fishery resources, habitats, long term effects, marine ecosystems, prediction, species diversity, Irish Sea
Bottom trawling has widespread impacts on benthic communities and habitats. While the direct impacts of trawl disturbances on benthic communities have been extensively studied, the consequences from long‐term chronic disturbances are less well understood. The response of benthic macrofauna to chronic otter‐trawl disturbance from a Nephrops norvegicus (Norway lobster) fishery was investigated along a gradient of fishing intensity over a muddy fishing ground in the northeastern Irish Sea. Chronic otter trawling had a significant, negative effect on benthic infauna abundance, biomass, and species richness. Benthic epifauna abundance and species richness also showed a significant, negative response, while no such effect was evident for epibenthic biomass. Furthermore, chronic trawl disturbance led to clear changes in community composition of benthic infauna and epifauna. The results presented indicate that otter‐trawl impacts are cumulative and can lead to profound changes in benthic communities, which may have far‐reaching implications for the integrity of marine food webs. Studies investigating the short‐term effects of fishing manipulations previously concluded that otter trawling on muddy substrates had only modest effects on the benthic biota. Hence, the results presented by this study highlight that data from experimental studies can not be readily extrapolated to an ecosystem level and that subtle cumulative effects may only become apparent when fishing disturbances are examined over larger spatial and temporal scales. Furthermore, this study shows that data on chronic effects of bottom trawling on the benthos will be vital in informing the recently advocated move toward an ecosystem approach in fisheries management. As bottom‐trawl fisheries are expanding into ever deeper muddy habitats, the results presented here are an important step toward understanding the global ecosystem effects of bottom trawling.