An international group of ecologists and economists has shown that the loss of biodiversity is profoundly reducing the ocean's ability to produce seafood, resist diseases, filter pollutants and rebound from stresses such as overfishing and climate change. Their results are published in this week's issue of the journal Science.
The study reveals that every species lost causes a faster unraveling of the overall ecosystem. Conversely, every species recovered adds significantly to overall productivity and stability of the ecosystem and its ability to withstand stresses.
"Whether we looked at tide pools or studies over the entire world's ocean, we saw the same picture emerging," said lead author Boris Worm of Dalhousie University. "In losing species we lose the productivity and stability of entire ecosystems. I was shocked and disturbed by how consistent these trends are--beyond anything we suspected."
The 4-year analysis is the first to examine all existing data on ocean species and ecosystems, synthesizing historical, experimental, fisheries, and observational data sets to understand the importance of biodiversity at the global scale.
"The findings show the power of synthesizing data for generating a scientific basis for important natural resource decisions," said Henry Gholz, program director in the National Science Foundation's (NSF) Division of Environmental Biology, which funded the research. The synthesis was done through the NSF-funded National Center for Ecological Analysis and Synthesis in Santa Barbara, Calif.
The results reveal global trends that mirror what scientists have observed at smaller scales, and they prove that progressive biodiversity loss not only impairs the ability of oceans to feed a growing human population, but also sabotages the stability of marine environments and their ability to recover from stresses.