MEPS 181:107-124 (1999)  -  doi:10.3354/meps181107

Experimental otter trawling on a sandy bottom ecosystem of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland: analysis of trawl bycatch and effects on epifauna

Jens Prena1, Peter Schwinghamer2, Terence W. Rowell1, Donald C. Gordon Jr1,*, Kent D. Gilkinson2, W. Peter Vass1, David L. McKeown3

1Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Marine Environmental Sciences Division, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, PO Box 1006, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia B2Y 4A2, Canada
2Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Northwest Atlantic Fisheries Centre, PO Box 5667, St. John's, Newfoundland A1C 5X1, Canada
3Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Ocean Sciences Division, Bedford Institute of Oceanography, PO Box 1006, Dartmouth, Nova Scotia B2Y 4A2, Canada
*Addressee for correspondence. E-mail:

ABSTRACT: An experimental study of the effects of otter trawling was conducted in a deep (120 to 146 m) sandy bottom ecosystem of the Grand Banks of Newfoundland from 1993 to 1995. Each year, three 13 km long corridors were trawled 12 times within 31 to 34 h with an Engel 145 otter trawl equipped with rockhopper foot gear. The width of the disturbance zones created was on the order of 120 to 250 m. The total biomass of invertebrate bycatch in the trawl decreased significantly over the 12 sets, even though only a very small proportion of the biomass present was removed and each set did not pass over exactly the same area of seabed. An influx of scavenging snow crabs Chionoecetes opilio into the trawled corridors was observed after the first 6 sets (approximately 10 to 12 h). Benthic organisms in trawled and nearby reference corridors were sampled with an epibenthic sled. Their biomass was on average 24% lower in trawled corridors than in reference corridors. At the species level, this biomass difference was significant for snow crabs C. opilio, sand dollars Echinarachnius parma, brittle stars Ophiura sarsi, sea urchins Strongylocentrotus pallidus and soft corals Gersemia sp. The reduced biomass of epibenthic organisms in trawled corridors is thought to be due to several interacting factors including direct removal by the trawl, mortality, damage, predation and migration. The homogeneity of the macro-invertebrate community collected by epibenthic sled was lower in trawled corridors. Sand dollars, brittle stars and sea urchins demonstrated significant levels of damage from trawling. The mean individual biomass of epibenthic organisms was lower in trawled corridors suggesting size specific impacts of trawling, especially for sand dollars. No significant effect of trawling was observed in the 4 dominant mollusc species captured by the sled (Astarte borealis, Margarites sordidus, Clinocardium ciliatum and Cyclocardia novangliae). This experiment indicates that otter trawling on a sandy bottom ecosystem can produce detectable changes on both benthic habitat and communities, in particular a significant reduction in the biomass of large epibenthic fauna.

KEY WORDS: Mobile fishing gear impacts · Otter trawling · Bycatch · Epibenthic organisms · Marine biodiversity · Grand Banks

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