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Climate change alters stability and species potential interactions in a large marine ecosystem

Griffith, Gary P., Strutton, Peter G., Semmens, Jayson M.
Global change biology 2018 v.24 no.1 pp. e90
anthropogenic activities, climate change, demersal fish, fisheries, keystone species, marine ecosystems, tuna
We have little empirical evidence of how large‐scale overlaps between large numbers of marine species may have altered in response to human impacts. Here, we synthesized all available distribution data (>1 million records) since 1992 for 61 species of the East Australian marine ecosystem, a global hot spot of ocean warming and continuing fisheries exploitation. Using a novel approach, we constructed networks of the annual changes in geographical overlaps between species. Using indices of changes in species overlap, we quantified changes in the ecosystem stability, species robustness, species sensitivity and structural keystone species. We then compared the species overlap indices with environmental and fisheries data to identify potential factors leading to the changes in distributional overlaps between species. We found that the structure of the ecosystem has changed with a decrease in asymmetrical geographical overlaps between species. This suggests that the ecosystem has become less stable and potentially more susceptible to environmental perturbations. Most species have shown a decrease in overlaps with other species. The greatest decrease in species overlap robustness and sensitivity to the loss of other species has occurred in the pelagic community. Some demersal species have become more robust and less sensitive. Pelagic structural keystone species, predominately the tunas and billfish, have been replaced by demersal fish species. The changes in species overlap were strongly correlated with regional oceanographic changes, in particular increasing ocean warming and the southward transport of warmer and saltier water with the East Australian Current, but less correlated with fisheries catch. Our study illustrates how large‐scale multispecies distribution changes can help identify structural changes in marine ecosystems associated with climate change.