Assessing the effects of internal (trophic structure) and external (fishing and environment) forcing factors on fisheries off central Chile : basis for an ecosystem approach to management

Doctoral Thesis


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University of Cape Town

Human perception of sea fisheries has evolved from an inexhaustible resource paradigm towards a generalized concern on the degraded state of fish stocks and ecosystems. Accordingly, fisheries science and management are expanding from the traditional single-species approach towards an ecosystem approach to fisheries. Marine communities are organized as webs of interactions that are affected by external natural (climate) and anthropogenic (fishing) forcing, with their relative effects poorly known, but hypothesised to strongly depend on internal food web structure (i.e., who eats and controls whom). This thesis approaches relevant ecological considerations for an ecosystem approach to fisheries in the upwelling ecosystem off central Chile (33ºS-39ºS). The main objective is to assess the effects of internal (trophic structure) and external (fishing and environment) forcing factors at the fish stock and food web level in the study area. The methodology includes i) the construction of snapshot and dynamic food web models to test hypothesis of changes in the food web in the last century, and the relative contribution of fishing, trophic controls and bottom-up environmental variability to those changes, ii) the computation and analysis of a set of ecosystem indicators to test hypotheses of changes in different aspects of the exploited community (mean trophic level, age and length at maturity, network properties and system variability), iii) the analyses of the relationships between time series of abundance of species with known trophic interactions (Chilean hake-red squat lobster and Chilean hake-small pelagic fish) to test hypothesis of top-down and bottom-up control versus alternative hypotheses of fishing and/or environmental control in the same populations, and iv) simulation experiments to test hypotheses of ecosystem change and recovery under fishing and environmental forcing. Models and indicators are constructed using data series of abundance, catches, production, consumption and diets of the main functional groups in the study area. Snapshot and dynamic food web models are constructed and analyzed using the Ecopath with Ecosim software version 5.1 and routines therein. The observed trends in indicators and model results are in accordance with what is theoretically expected in stressed ecosystems (shift towards a food web dominated by short-lived, low trophic level and high turnover rate species), and suggest that the food web could be in a state that is more susceptible to external forcing. Fishing and the environment (bottom-up anomaly in PP) may have affected the upwelling ecosystem off central Chile both at the stock and at the food web level between 1970 and 2004. The effects of these forcing factors may have been mediated by trophic controls operating in the food web. There is also evidence to support the hypothesis that trophic controls beyond fishing, e.g., trophic (internal) and environment (external) may operate in the analysed populations and this information should be considered in their assessment and management. While target objectives are set and agreed, it is proposed that the main objective for the ecosystem approach to fisheries should be to avoid fishing-induced regime shifts, since results from simulation experiments suggest that fishing can induce ecosystem changes of lower recovery than bottom-up forcing.

Includes abstract.

Includes bibliographical references (p. 227-253).