Modelling ecosystem dynamics to assess the effect of coastal fisheries on cetacean species
The expansion of fisheries and its increased efficiency are causing severe detrimental impacts on marine species and ecosystems, that can be categorised into operational and ecological effects. While impacts directly caused by fishing activities have been extensively documented, it is difficult to set an empirical link between fisheries and changes in predator biomass and abundance. Therefore, exploring the functioning of ecosystems as a whole, the interactions between the different species within them and the impact of human activities, is key to understanding the ecological effects of fisheries on top predators and ecosystems, and to develop effective conservation measures, while ensuring a more sustainable exploitation of fishing resources. For instance, mass balance models, such as Ecopath with Ecosim, have proven to be a useful tool to develop more holistic fisheries management and conservation strategies. In this study, Ecopath with Ecosim was used to investigate the temporal dynamics of the Rías Baixas shelf ecosystem (North-West Spain) between 2005 and 2017. Additionally, nine 30-year forward projecting simulations covering the period 2018–2047 were developed to examine the effects of differing fisheries management strategies on common dolphins (Delphinus delphis), bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus) and harbour porpoises (Phocoena phocoena). Results from these models suggest that when intense fishing increases it poses a major threat to the conservation of these top predators in the area, by reducing the variety of their available prey and potentially enhancing competition amongst them. The study highlights the applicability of Ecopath with Ecosim to develop cetacean conservation measures and despite its small spatial scale, it provides a general framework that can be used to assess cetacean conservation in larger and impacted areas.