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Research Technical Report

Effects of Otter Trawling on a Benthic Community in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

Engel, J., and R. Kvitek (1998)

Conservation Biology 12:1204-1214


Bottom trawling is one of the most disruptive and widespread human-induced physical disturbances to seabed communities and has become a global environmental concern. We used a comparative approach to test the hypothesis that persistent otter trawling decreases bottom habitat complexity and biodiversity, increases the abundance of opportunistic species, and benefits prey important in the diet of some commercially valuable fish. We compared two similar and adjacent fishing areas at 180 m off central California in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary: one inside the three-mile coastal zone of restricted fishing with light levels of trawling and one beyond the three-mile limit with high levels of trawling. Differences in fishing effort between the two areas were confirmed and quantified by means of data and tow number statistics from Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) Trawl Logbook records. We used still photography, video footage, bottom grab samples, and experimental trawling to compare the physical and biological parameters of the two areas. The area with high levels of trawling had significantly more trawl tracks, exposed sediment, and shell fragments and significantly fewer rocks and mounds and less flocculent material than the lightly trawled area. Most invertebrate epifauna counted were significantly more abundant in the lightly trawled area. The density of the amphinomid polychaete, Chloeia pinnata, as well as that of oligochaetes, ophiuroids, and nematodes, were higher every year in the highly trawled area, and there were significantly fewer polychaete species every year in the highly trawled area. Content analysis of fish guts showed that C. pinnata was a dominant prey item for some of the commercially important flatfishes in both lightly and heavily trawled areas. Our study provides evidence that high levels of trawling can decrease bottom habitat complexity and biodiversity and enhance the abundance of opportunistic species and certain prey important in the diet of some commercially important fishes. Our work also illustrates how constraints currently imposed on fisheries research by the near universal absence of true unfished control sites severely limit out ability to determine appropriate levels of harvest pressure for maintaining sustainable fisheries and marine biodiversity. Valid research in these areas will require marine reserves in which fishing effort and methods can be manipulated in collaborative studies involving fishers, researchers, and resource agencies.

Reviewed: April 11, 2024
Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service

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