Grazer removal and nutrient enrichment as recovery enhancers for overexploited rocky subtidal habitats.

Research paper by Giuseppe G Guarnieri, Stanislao S Bevilacqua, Fabio F Vignes, Simonetta S Fraschetti

Indexed on: 22 Apr '14Published on: 22 Apr '14Published in: Oecologia


Increasing anthropogenic pressures are causing long-lasting regime shifts from high-diversity ecosystems to low-diversity degraded ones. Understanding the effects of multiple threats on ecosystems, and identifying processes allowing for the recovery of biodiversity, are the current major challenges in ecology. In several temperate marine areas, large parts of rocky subtidal habitats characterised by high diversity have been completely degraded to barren grounds by overfishing, including illegal date mussel fishing. Bare areas are characterized by the dominance of sea urchins whose grazing perpetuates the impact of overfishing. We investigated experimentally the separate and combined effects of nutrient enrichment and sea urchin exclusion on the recovery of barren grounds. Our results indicate that the two factors have a synergistic effect leading to the re-establishment of erect macroalgal canopies, enhancing the structural complexity of subtidal assemblages. In particular, in the overfished system considered here, the recovery of disturbed assemblages could occur only if sea urchins are removed. However, the recolonization of barren grounds by erect macroalgae is further enhanced under enriched conditions. This study demonstrates that the recovery of dramatically depleted marine habitats is possible, and provides useful indications for specific management actions, which at present are totally lacking, to achieve the restoration of barren grounds caused by human activity.