MEPS 318:31-45 (2006)  -  doi:10.3354/meps318031

Chronic bottom trawling alters the functional composition of benthic invertebrate communities on a sea-basin scale

H. M. Tillin1,3, J. G. Hiddink1,*, S. Jennings2, M. J. Kaiser1

1School of Ocean Sciences, University of Wales, Bangor, Menai Bridge, Anglesey LL59 5AB, UK
2Centre for Environment, Fisheries and Aquaculture Science (CEFAS), Lowestoft Laboratory, Pakefield Road, Lowestoft, Suffolk NR33 0HT, UK
3Present address: School of Biological Sciences, Biosciences Building, University of Liverpool, Crown Street, Liverpool L69 7ZB, UK
*Corresponding author. Email:

ABSTRACT: Bottom trawling causes widespread physical disturbance of sediments in seas and oceans and affects benthic communities by removing target and non-target species and altering habitats. One aspiration of the ecosystem approach to management is to conserve function as well as biodiversity, but trawling impacts on benthic community function need to be understood before they can be managed. Here we present the large scale and long term impact of chronic trawling on the functional composition of benthic invertebrate communities using a comprehensive set of functional traits. The effects of chronic trawling disturbance on the functional composition of faunal benthic invertebrate communities, as sampled with a small beam trawl, were investigated at 6 to 13 sites in each of 4 contrasting regions of the North Sea. Each site was subject to known levels of trawling disturbance. Information on the life history and ecological function traits of the taxa sampled was translated into fuzzy coding and used to analyse the relationship between life history and functional roles within the ecosystem. Multivariate analyses were used to examine changes in the distribution of traits over gradients of trawling intensity. Changes in the functional structure of the community due to the effects of long-term trawling were identified in 3 of the 4 areas sampled. Filter-feeding, attached and larger animals were relatively more abundant in lightly trawled areas, while areas with higher levels of trawling were characterised by a higher relative biomass of mobile animals and infaunal and scavenging invertebrates. Univariate analysis of selected traits confirmed the patterns observed in multivariate analysis. These results demonstrate that chronic bottom trawling can lead to large scale shifts in the functional composition of benthic communities, with likely effects on the functioning of coastal ecosystems.


KEY WORDS: Benthic invertebrates · Biological traits · Fuzzy coding · Fishing · Ecosystem functioning


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