Featured Image Credit: Dietmar Down Under via Flickr
By: Adam Trautwig
Even if you live under a rock, you may have heard that the status of some of our most valuable fish populations are in extreme peril. All, however, is not lost.
Jacob Kritzer, affiliated with the Environmental Defense Fund in Boston MA, and his team of scientists have published a study in BioScience called “The Importance of Benthic Habitats for Costal Fisheries.” Their study claims that perhaps the most important factor in marine ecosystem management may be right under our feet.
The study reaffirms that while most of the areas that we associate with marine diversity may be important, the unsung hero of the ocean may be the lowly ocean mud.
This material, the soft squishy muck found on the bottom of bodies of water, is called benthos.
Soft sediments have a relatively prevalent role in multiple life stages of a broad variety of sea creatures. Everything from the fish and crustaceans we eat to the invertebrates and other microorganisms that they eat, spend time in the benthos.
Organisms that live in the benthos, such as benthic fish, are also an important part of other ecosystem functions that we rarely think of. Those functions can affect anything from the type of vegetation available to marine grazers to the structure of the very benthos in which they live.
Image source: Albert Kok via Wikipedia
And, this complex web reaches much farther than the benthos itself. There are invertebrates, which are part of different habitats, that occasionally traverse the open ocean leaving behind waste (or even their bodies) to sink to the ocean floor.
Luckily, we have scientists with interests as diverse as the ecosystems they study. Another research group led by Anna Törnroos in Finland has begun to investigate the effect that losing some of this diversity may have on how ecosystems function. They’ve found that as diversity dwindles, the number of tasks benthic organisms as a whole can perform dwindles as well. These tasks include things like decomposition of organic sediments and the fate of the resulting nutrients.
Traditionally, environmental assessments have often assigned a low ecological value to these types of habitats. With the increasing ubiquity of man-made intrusion and habitat alteration, in an ever-changing climate, the need to reevaluate how we manage the ocean has become more apparent.
When addressing how to best combat these changes Kritzer concludes that habitat management should begin to incorporate these important ecosystems into future planning.
Read the study itself: “The Importance of Benthic Habitats for Costal Fisheries” in BioScience.
Follow our guest columnist Adam Trautwig on Twitter @1SolitaryTrout.