Overfishing and the Replacement of Demersal Finfish by Shellfish: An Example from the English Channel

Filed under: Fisheries Management, Projects 

Note: this research, and other similar findings, illustrate the fact that fish stocks do not exist in isolation, thus emphasizing the importance of an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.

July 10th, 2014, by Carlotta Molfeese, Doug Beare, Jason M. Hall-Spencer, Research Article on PLOSone.org


The worldwide depletion of major fish stocks through intensive industrial fishing is thought to have profoundly altered the trophic structure of marine ecosystems. Here we assess changes in the trophic structure of the English Channel marine ecosystem using a 90-year time-series (1920–2010) of commercial fishery landings. Our analysis was based on estimates of the mean trophic level (mTL) of annual landings and the Fishing-in-Balance index (FiB). Food webs of the Channel ecosystem have been altered, as shown by a significant decline in the mTL of fishery landings whilst increases in the FiB index suggest increased fishing effort and fishery expansion. Large, high trophic level species (e.g. spurdog, cod, ling) have been increasingly replaced by smaller, low trophic level fish (e.g. small spotted catsharks) and invertebrates (e.g. scallops, crabs and lobster). Declining trophic levels in fisheries catches have occurred worldwide, with fish catches progressively being replaced by invertebrates. We argue that a network of fisheries closures would help rebalance the trophic status of the Channel and allow regeneration of marine ecosystems.


Effects of overfishing on marine trophic structure

The field of historical marine ecology has introduced a different perspective to our understanding of marine ecosystems; it has revealed that overfishing has had profound effects on coastal ecosystems worldwide for centuries [1][2]. The historical response to overfishing is an increase in fishing effort, an expansion to new and deeper grounds and a shift to new target species [3]. In the last decade, fisheries have shifted towards smaller, lower-trophic level species as large predatory species with a higher economic value had been depleted [4]. This phenomenon, known as “fishing down marine food webs” was first described by [5] in 1998: they demonstrated a decline in the trophic level of global fisheries landings from 3.3 units in the early 1950s to 3.1 in 1994. Studies performed independently from commercial catch data on smaller, regional scales over the last decades have shown even more rapid declines in trophic level.

Fisheries typically remove top predators first and as a result their direct competitors and prey are able to prosper, affecting the overall productivity and ecological stability of the ecosystem[1]. Severe declines in the populations of major predator species have now been reported around the world [6][7]. Overexploitation of a species can have cascading effects and have the potential to trigger regime shifts altering the ecological function of marine systems [8][9]. In many instances, the decline of finfish species has been followed by an increase in their invertebrate prey [10][11] and although new and economically viable fisheries have developed for these new target species, concerns have been raised about their long-term sustainability as well as shifts towards homogenized, simplified ecosystems [12][13].

In the present study, we used a 90-year dataset of international catch statistics from the English Channel marine ecosystem, a region that has numerous important fishing ports and where finfish landings now make up a far smaller proportion of the catch than they did historically (Figure 1). This dataset spans a period of intensive fishing which we use to assess whether there has been a trend for ‘fishing down’ food webs in a region where it has not been reported before. Finally, we discuss the way forwards to improve fisheries sustainability using area closures to aid recovery of marine ecosystems.

Read more of the research article here

Several mainstream media sources covered this research: The Telegraph, Western Morning News, and The Plymouth Herald


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