With crabs and lobsters at the top of the proverbial heap, the Gulf may have entered a new stable phase marked by the presence of expansive kelp beds and the near absence of sea urchins. These findings could signal the likelihood of significant biological changes in other heavily fished parts of the world's oceans as well.
The authors of the report are Robert S. Steneck, professor of marine sciences at UMaine's Darling Marine Center, and former UMaine graduate students John Vavrinec and Amanda Leland. They received support for their research from the Pew Foundation for Marine Conservation, Maine Sea Grant, the Maine Department of Marine Resources and the National Undersea Research Program.
The researchers analyzed fishing records and previous studies to gather evidence for the changes brought on by fishing pressure in marine ecosystems. Ancient coastal middens, for example, have revealed evidence suggesting that Native American fishing activities were beginning to affect near shore ecosystems several thousand years ago. Analysis of colonial and modern fish landing records shows that such changes accelerated with the adoption of new fishing technologies.
It is a revolution of sorts, an overturning of the established order brought on by fishing pressure, that leads to major changes in the coastal marine ecosystem, according to the article, "Accelerating Trophic-level Dysfunction in Kelp Forest Ecosystems of the Western North Atlantic." In the Gulf of Maine, the revolution was brought on by the drastic reduction in the number of cod and other top predators over the past century.