How overfishing can alter an ocean’s entire ecosystem

When you tip the balance, a cascade of other changes may occur.

Mary Knox Merrill / The Christian Science Monitor
Cod and haddock are unloaded and sorted at the pier of Lydia's Cove in Chatham, Mass. Cod are brown in coloring and haddock are gray with a black stripe. The depletion of fisheries is affecting the future of the fishing industry on Cape Cod. Fishermen are working alongside scientists and community organizers to adapt their ways in hopes of establishing sustainable ways of fishing – and maintining fishing communities.

In 2000, University of Maine graduate student Amanda Leland began a seemingly straightforward restoration project. She transported 24,000 young sea urchins, which are native to the Gulf of Maine, to an area where overharvesting had caused them to disappear. She expected to watch them thrive and repopulate. But something else happened: An army of Jonah crabs arrived and, within a month, the hand-sized predators had devoured the urchins.

Ms. Leland repeated the experiment the following year. But this time she transplanted the urchins in spring, months before the crabs’ fall migration. They thrived as expected – until August when the crabs showed up. By Sept. 1, they were gone. Leland thought she knew why. With cod and other groundfish gone, Jonah crabs were four times more abundant than in times past.

“There really aren’t many crab predators left,” says Leland, now the Environ­ment­­al Defense Fund’s national policy director of oceans in Washington. “They have been released from predation control.”

Scientists have documented versions of this story around the world. Overfishing has shifted entire ecosystems with often surprising, and occasionally unpleasant, results. In the tropics, seaweed often dominates where coral once reigned. Around the world, jellyfish and algae proliferate where finfish previously dominated. With big predators often gone or greatly depleted, organisms lower on the food web grow more abundant, reducing their own prey in turn.

Some say this is worrisome evidence of a greatly changed and simplified marine ecosystem. Like investment portfolios with few holdings, simple ecosystems are prone to collapse; and collapsed or rearranged ecosystems don’t necessarily provide what humans expect. Increasingly mindful of marine ecosystems’ complexity – and wary of their collapse – some people are calling for a holistic approach to managing ecosystems, one that aims to manage for the health of the entire system rather than that of a single stock.

Just 4 percent of the world’s oceans remains free from human impact, according to a 2008 study in the journal Science. Forty percent of this is heavily impacted.

Where intact ecosystems remain, scientists are often astounded by what they find. On the remote Palmyra Atoll in the equatorial Pacific, for example, large sharks and predatory fish dominate the reefscape – an “abundance of toothy things,” says Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York, England. Unlike terrestrial ecosystems, which are dominated by a few apex predators, pristine marine ecosystems support a large biomass at the top.

“Today’s oceans have got far less in the way of biomass than they used to,” Professor Roberts says. “We’re altering ecosystems in a way that reduces the level of productivity they can support.”

By one estimate, only one-tenth of the sharks, tunas, cods, and other large predatory fish that once swam the oceans remains. And their absence has ripple effects throughout marine food webs.

In the eastern US, one study found that the loss of large predators (sharks) let medium-sized predators (skates) in­­crease in bays and estuaries. They, in turn, decimated the bay scallop fishery.

In tropical reefs, scientists think that fishing has removed fish that eat starfish. Starfish graze on coral. Eighty percent of Caribbean reefs have disappeared in the past 30 years. (Reefs in the Pacific are faring slightly better.)

Around the world, loss of fish, combined with increased nutrient inflow from pollution, has caused a bloom of primitive organisms in the ocean: the same algae, bacteria, and jellyfish that dominated the seas before the explosion of complex life 600 million years ago. Jeremy Jackson, a professor of oceanography at Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, Calif., has dubbed it “the rise of slime.”

“You remove all the fish, and [coral reefs] look like a sewer,” he says. “They’re green and slimy and covered with all this stuff the fish used to eat.”
In the Gulf of Maine urchin experiment, another feedback may have been at work. Without urchins, the ecosystem’s major grazer, seaweed grew thickly, providing more cover for crab populations.

“We’re left with an oddly stripped ecosystem here in the Gulf of Maine – absent our apex predators and absent our herbivores,” says Robert Steneck, a professor of oceanography at the University of Maine’s Darling Marine Center in Walpole, and Leland’s adviser on the urchin experiments. “We’ve steered this ecosystem to a place for which there is no evolutionary history.”

Scientists value diverse ecosystems for their redundancy. Redundancy – lots of species doing the same thing – equates to more ability to withstand natural or man-made shocks, from an El Niño to global warming. In the tropics, scientists have found that reefs with intact ecosystems recover faster from such disturbances.

They’ve also found that areas off-limits to fishing have greater species richness compared with fished areas, and they experience less fluctuation in fish biomass when disturbed – findings with implications not only for fishermen but also for climate change.

As stocks of bigger fish have grown scarce, fishermen have moved down the food web, chasing invertebrates and small fish. (In Asia, marketers are trying to develop a market for jellyfish, a growing share of their catch.) In parts of eastern Maine where cod and other finfish once ruled, 90 percent of fishermen now rely on lobster. If lobster stocks crash, eastern Maine lobstermen would have nothing to fall back on.

“[Lobsters] are relatives of bugs, and these populations go up and down rapidly,” says Robin Alden, executive director of the Penobscot East Resource Center in Stonington, Maine. “We’ve got an economy here that’s terrifyingly dependent on lobster.”

Ecosystems have proven that they can recover. Since various protective measures were instituted in the Gulf of Maine and Georges Bank in the past decade, some stocks have rebounded. Herring are doing well, as are haddock. But cod, once a mainstay, remain depressed.

Some fault the loss of the big, old females, often the first to be caught. A lone 28-pound red snapper can produce 9.3 million eggs. By one calculation, it would take 212 fish weighing 2-1/2 pounds to produce the same quantity.

Others point to new imbalances: “If you look at the total mass of fish out on Georges [Bank], it’s very stable,” says Steve Murawski, director of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association (NOAA) Fisheries Service. “There’s a lot of species, just not the ones you want to put on your white tablecloth.”

Perhaps those newly abundant species are eating young cod. Fishermen up and down the New England coast fault the dogfish, a kind of shark. Scientists say dogfish don’t eat cod, but Jon Grabowski, an ecologist at the Gulf of Maine Resource Institute in Portland, Maine, says that dogfish need not eat cod to influence cod behavior. When dogfish are present, cod tend to disperse, he notes, a phenomenon known as “risk effects” or, more dramatically, the “ecology of fear.”

“One lion is only going to eat one wildebeest every couple of days,” says Grabowski. “But it’s going to induce a herd of wildebeest to move.”

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