Meta-analysis reveals top-down processes are as strong as bottom-up effects in North Atlantic coastal food webs
Abstract: Seagrass and seaweed habitats constitute hotspots for diversity and ecosystem services in coastal ecosystems. These habitats are subject to anthropogenic pressures, of which eutrophication is one major stressor. Eutrophication favours fast-growing ephemeral algae over perennial macroalgae and seagrasses, causing habitat degradation. However, changes in top-down control, caused by, for example, overfishing, may also have negative impacts on such habitats by decreasing grazer control of ephemeral algae. Meanwhile, systematic analyses estimating top-down effects of predator manipulations across a wide range of studies are missing, limiting the potential use of top-down control measures in coastal management. Here, we review the literature on experiments that test top-down and bottom-up controls in seagrass Zostera marina and seaweed Fucus spp. food webs in the North Atlantic. Using meta-analysis and meta-regression, we compare effect sizes of consumer and nutrient manipulations on primary producers, grazers and mesopredators. Presence of mesopredators on average doubled the biomass of ephemeral algae through trophic cascades, mainly mediated via negative effects on amphipods and isopods. Of the grazers, gastropods had twice as strong a negative effect on ephemeral algae as amphipods/isopods, but responded weakly to both predators and fertilization. In accordance with theory, top-down effects became stronger with eutrophication. Across studies, top-down effects on ephemeral algae at all trophic levels are on par with eutrophication effects. However, the few studies manipulating piscivorous fish make estimates of their top-down effects uncertain. Synthesis and applications. Consistently strong top-down effects in coastal ecosystems call for an integrated ecosystem perspective. Management should consider measures to improve stocks of predatory fish and reduce mesopredators for restoration and conservation of essential seagrass and seaweed habitats, thereby increasing the long-term viability of ecosystem services from coastal habitats.
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