The horse mussel Modiolus modiolus (L.) is a large marine bivalve that aggregates to create complex habitats of high biodiversity. As a keystone species, M. modiolusis of great importance for the functioning of marine benthic ecosystems, forming biogenic habitats used to designate Marine Protected Areas (MPAs). The present study investigates the condition of M. modiolus beds historically subjected to intense scallop fishing using mobile fishing gears. The study, conducted seven years after the introduction of legislation banning all forms of fishing, aimed to establish whether natural habitat recovery occurs after protection measures are put in place.
Lower biodiversity and up to 80% decline in densities of M. modiolus were recorded across the current distributional range of the species in Strangford Lough, Northern Ireland. The decline in biodiversity in most areas surveyed was consistent with that observed in biogenic reefs impacted by mobile fishing gears elsewhere. Epifauna, including sponges, hydroids and tunicates, experienced the most substantial decline in biodiversity, with up to 64% fewer taxa recorded in 2010 compared with 2003. Higher variability in community composition and a shift towards faunal assemblages dominated by opportunistic infaunal species typical of softer substrata were also detected. Based on these observations we suggest that, for biogenic habitats, the designation of MPAs and the introduction of fishing bans alone may not be sufficient to reverse or halt the negative effects caused by past anthropogenic impacts. Direct intervention, including habitat restoration based on translocation of native keystone species, should be considered as part of management strategies for MPAs which host similar biogenic reef habitats where condition and natural recovery have been compromised.