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Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem

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Abstract

Overfishing of large-bodied benthic fishes and their subsequent population collapses on the Scotian Shelf of Canada’s east coast1,2 and elsewhere3,4 resulted in restructuring of entire food webs now dominated by planktivorous, forage fish species and macroinvertebrates. Despite the imposition of strict management measures in force since the early 1990s, the Scotian Shelf ecosystem has not reverted back to its former structure. Here we provide evidence of the transient nature of this ecosystem and its current return path towards benthic fish species domination. The prolonged duration of the altered food web, and its current recovery, was and is being governed by the oscillatory, runaway consumption dynamics of the forage fish complex. These erupting forage species, which reached biomass levels 900% greater than those prevalent during the pre-collapse years of large benthic predators, are now in decline, having outstripped their zooplankton food supply. This dampening, and the associated reduction in the intensity of predation, was accompanied by lagged increases in species abundances at both lower and higher trophic levels, first witnessed in zooplankton and then in large-bodied predators, all consistent with a return towards the earlier ecosystem structure. We conclude that the reversibility of perturbed ecosystems can occur and that this bodes well for other collapsed fisheries.

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Figure 1: Variability of the eastern Scotian Shelf ecosystem.
Figure 2: Physiological changes in forage fish species and resultant food web effects.
Figure 3: Post-perturbation forage fish variability.

Change history

  • 20 October 2011

    In the 'Damped harmonic oscillator calculations' section of the online-only Methods, the equation was corrected in the HTML and the PDF.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the Department of Fisheries and Oceans staff who collected and maintained the multi-trophic level and biogeochemical monitoring data, J. Black for assistance with computing and database issues, and A. Bundy and D. R. Strong for helpful criticisms. Symbols for Fig. 2b are courtesy of the Integration and Application Network (http://www.ian.umces.edu/symbols). This research was supported by Fisheries and Oceans Canada and Discovery grants from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (to K.T.F. and W.C.L.).

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K.T.F. developed the overall concept of paper reported here. B.P and K.T.F. developed the initial hypothesis and assembled the relevant data. Most analyses were performed by B.P. with assistance from J.A.D.F. and K.T.F. All authors contributed to the interpretations and synthesis of the analytical results.

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Correspondence to Kenneth T. Frank.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Frank, K., Petrie, B., Fisher, J. et al. Transient dynamics of an altered large marine ecosystem. Nature 477, 86–89 (2011). https://doi.org/10.1038/nature10285

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