Ecological consequences of body size decline in harvested fish species: positive feedback loops in trophic interactions amplify human impact

Asta Audzijonyte, Anna Kuparinen, Rebecca Gorton, Elizabeth A. Fulton

Abstract

Humans are changing marine ecosystems worldwide, both directly through fishing and indirectly through climate change. One of the little explored outcomes of human-induced change involves the decreasing body sizes of fishes. We use a marine ecosystem model to explore how a slow (less than 0.1% per year) decrease in the length of five harvested species could affect species interactions, biomasses and yields. We find that even small decreases in fish sizes are amplified by positive feedback loops in the ecosystem and can lead to major changes in natural mortality. For some species, a total of 4 per cent decrease in length-at-age over 50 years resulted in 50 per cent increase in predation mortality. However, the magnitude and direction in predation mortality changes differed among species and one shrinking species even experienced reduced predation pressure. Nevertheless, 50 years of gradual decrease in body size resulted in 1–35% decrease in biomasses and catches of all shrinking species. Therefore, fisheries management practices that ignore contemporary life-history changes are likely to overestimate long-term yields and can lead to overfishing.

  • Received November 25, 2012.
  • Accepted January 14, 2013.
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