Estimating sensitivity of seabed habitats to disturbance by bottom trawling based on the longevity of benthic fauna.

Open Access Peer Reviewed Publication 2018

Ecological Applications

Bottom fishing such as trawling and dredging may pose serious risks to the seabed and benthic habitats, calling for a quantitative assessment method to evaluate the impact and guide management to develop mitigation measures. We provide a method to estimate the sensitivity of benthic habitats based on the longevity composition of the invertebrate community. We hypothesize that long-lived species are more sensitive to trawling mortality due to their lower pace of life (i.e., slower growth, late maturation). We analyze data from box-core and grab samples taken from 401 stations in the English Channel and southern North Sea to estimate the habitat-specific longevity composition of the benthic invertebrate community and of specific functional groups (i.e., suspension feeders and bioturbators), and examine how bottom trawling affects the longevity biomass composition. The longevity biomass composition differed between habitats governed by differences in sediment composition (gravel and mud content) and tidal bed-shear stress. The biomass proportion of long-lived species increased with gravel content and decreased with mud content and shear stress. Bioturbators had a higher median longevity than suspension feeders. Trawling, in particular by gears that penetrate the seabed >2 cm, shifted the community toward shorter-lived species. Changes from bottom trawling were highest in habitats with many long-lived species (hence increasing with gravel content, decreasing with mud content). Benthic communities in high shear stress habitats were less affected by bottom trawling. Using these relationships, we predicted the sensitivity of the benthic community from bottom trawling impact at large spatial scale (the North Sea). We derived different benthic sensitivity metrics that provide a basis to estimate indicators of trawling impact on a continuous scale for the total community and specific functional groups. In combination with high resolution data of trawling pressure, our approach can be used to monitor and assess trawling impact and seabed status at the scale of the region or broadscale habitat and to compare the environmental impact of bottom-contacting fishing gears across fisheries.

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