Food web feedbacks drive the response of benthic macrofauna to bottom trawling

Karen E. van de Wolfshaar*, P.D. van Denderen, Tim Schellekens, Tobias van Kooten

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

3 Citations (Scopus)


Bottom trawl fisheries have significant effects on benthic habitats and communities, and these effects have been studied intensively in the last decades. Most of these studies have related the changes in benthic community composition to direct effect of trawl gears on benthos, through imposed mortality. This line of argumentation ignores the fact that benthic organisms themselves form a complex food web and that bottom trawling may trigger secondary effects through this food web. We studied the potential consequences of such food web effects using a model of benthic predators, filter feeders, deposit feeders and fish. Our analysis shows how inclusion of ecological interactions complicates the relationship between bottom trawling intensity and the state of the benthic community and causes a non-linear and non-monotonic response of the benthic community to trawling. This shows that indirect food web effects can fundamentally alter the response of a benthic ecosystem to bottom trawling, compared to the direct effects of mortality. In light of our results, we argue that indicators of fishing impact on benthos need to account for positive as well as negative effects of bottom trawling, in order to accurately quantify the impact. Our findings highlight that understanding the food web ecology of the benthic ecosystem is crucial for understanding and predicting the effects of trawling on the seafloor. Work that promotes such understanding of the food web ecology seems a more productive research strategy than conducting ever more empirical trawling effect measurements.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)962-972
JournalFish and Fisheries
Issue number5
Early online date21 Jun 2020
Publication statusPublished - Sep 2020


  • benthos
  • bottom fishing
  • Food web model
  • trawling impacts


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