Research Article: Sensitivity of multispecies maximum sustainable yields to trends in the top (marine mammals) and bottom (primary production) compartments of the southern North Sea food-web

Date Published: January 28, 2019

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Moritz Stäbler, Alexander Kempf, Sophie Smout, Axel Temming, Tarsila Seara.


In marine ecosystems, maximum sustainable yield considerations are affected by any substantial changes that occur in the top and bottom compartments of the food-web. This study explores how the southern North Sea’s fisheries may need to adjust their fishing efforts to maintain optimum yields of sole, plaice, cod and brown shrimps under increased marine mammal populations and a reduced primary productivity. We constructed plausible scenarios of ongoing food-web changes using the results of Bayesian age-structured population models to estimate carrying capacities of harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena) and grey seals (Halichoerus grypus). Losses in primary productivity were predicted by lower trophic level ecosystem models. These scenarios were implemented in a food-web model of the southern North Sea. For each scenario, we sought mixed-fleet fishing efforts that would deliver maximum yields of sole, plaice, cod and brown shrimp combined. We also did so for a baseline run with unaltered mammal and primary production, and compared the differences in optimal fishing strategies, predicted yields, and states of the stocks between the scenarios. We found stocks and yields to be far more sensitive to changes in primary productivity than to increased marine mammal predation. The latter predominantly impacted cod, and even benefitted brown shrimps compared to the baseline run. Under 30% reduced primary productivity, fishing efforts had to be reduced by 50% to still provide maximum yields, whereas the marine mammal scenario induced no need to adjust the fishing regime. This draws attention to the potential gains of incorporating bottom-up processes into long-term management considerations, while marine mammal predation may be less of a concern, in particular for flatfish fisheries in the North Sea, and may even benefit shrimp trawlers because of reduced predation on shrimp from fish predators.

Partial Text

Managing fisheries for cod (Gadus morhua), plaice (Pleuronectes platessa), sole (Solea solea) and brown shrimp (Crangon crangon) in the southern North Sea (divisions IVb and IVc of the International Council for Exploration of the Sea, ICES; Fig 1) is a challenging enterprise, as the various target species are linked to each other through a complex food-web [1–3]. Also, one and the same species can be extracted by different gears with different consequences for other stocks and life stages and the environment [4–7]. Both multispecies and mixed-fleet effects have consequences when considering maximum sustainable yield (MSY) options for the area, questioning whether maximum yields of all single stocks can be achieved simultaneously [2, 6, 8]. Rather than single species MSYs, the goal in such cases should be the achievement of a multispecies MSY (msMSY), in which the trade-offs of fishing trophically or technically interlinked species are balanced such as to generate optimum aggregated outcomes to fishers and society [2, 3, 8].

In search of fishing strategies leading to msMSY in the different scenarios (baseline, primary productivity de-, and marine mammal increases), fishing efforts were changed in steps of 0.5-fold those efforts executed in 2010 (c.f. first section of Methods). After finding msMSY for the baseline scenario, we contrasted the results with the scenario of projected future marine mammal populations. Our results suggest that increases in the abundance of marine mammals do not lead to a need to reconsider the fishing strategy leading to msMSY. At a 0.5-fold search grid (c.f. first section of Methods), there are no differences in effort and F levels between the two marine mammals scenarios and the baseline (Table 1). Increases in the populations of harbour porpoises and grey seals considerably affect cod catches and biomasses (and more so, as expected, for the scenario with pertained southwards drift of the porpoise population), while they have a much more limited effect on flatfish (Fig 6, Tables 2 and 3). As suggested by Temming and Hufnagl [1], our study also shows that seal predation on cod relieves brown shrimp from their key predator, leading to higher stock biomasses and catches of shrimp (Fig 6, Table 3). The only subtle differences between the scenario with and the one without ongoing southward shift of harbour porpoises illustrates the dominant impact of seals on fished stocks compared to the cetaceans.

This study explores the sensitivity of msMSY fishing strategies and yields to projected ecological changes in a food-web model of the southern North Sea. It shows in which cases fishing pressures have to be adapted in response to potential future ecosystem regimes to produce maximum catches and revenues, and how yields and spawning stock biomasses may react. All potential environmental changes tested here have negative effects on the yields of the three fish species sole, plaice, and cod. Generally, plaice catches are most robust, followed by sole. Brown shrimp catches suffer from cuts in system productivity, but benefit from cod stock reductions through marine mammals. Of the scenarios tested, losses in primary productivity pose the most severe challenges to all three fisheries, beam, otter and brown shrimp trawlers, while the predicted increases in marine mammals consistently raise the least concerns.

Our results indicate that exploitation intensities, i.e. fishing mortalities and efforts, leading to msMSY may be robust to changes in marine mammal predation but very sensitive to changes in system productivity, which would require us to reconsider fishing strategies when opting for maximized yields in weight and revenue. In essence, when the system was placed under stress, the level of exploitation had to be reduced in order to optimize yields. These results illustrate the benefits of fishing at the lower edge of MSY ranges, i.e. with fishing pressures that, while still providing acceptable yields, lie below those associated with absolute maximum yields [2, 3, 53, 54]. Regarding fishing intensities that theoretically provide absolute optimum yields as a limit that is to be avoided rather than a target may provide not only conservation safeguards, but also increase the robustness of aspired yields.




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