, Volume 14, Issue 2, pp 198-222
Date: 14 Dec 2010

Historical Changes in Marine Resources, Food-web Structure and Ecosystem Functioning in the Adriatic Sea, Mediterranean

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The Mediterranean Sea has been strongly influenced by human activities for millennia. Although the environmental history of its surrounding terrestrial ecosystems has received considerable study, historical changes in its marine realm are less known. We used a multidisciplinary approach combining paleontological, archeological, historical, fisheries, and ecological data to reconstruct past changes in marine populations, habitats, and water quality in the Adriatic Sea. Then, we constructed binary food webs for different historical periods to analyze possible changes in food-web structure and functioning over time. Our results indicate that human activities have influenced marine resource abundance since at least Roman times and accelerated in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Today, 98% of traditional marine resources are depleted to less than 50% of former abundance, with large (>1 m) predators and consumers being most affected. With 37% of investigated species rare and 11% extirpated, diversity has shifted towards smaller, lower trophic-level species, further aggravated by more than 40 species invasions. Species providing habitat and filter functions have been reduced by 75%, contributing to the degradation of water quality and increased eutrophication. Increased exploitation and functional extinctions have altered and simplified food-web structure over time, especially by changing the proportions of top predators, intermediate consumers, and basal species. Moreover, simulations of species losses indicate that today’s ecosystems may be less robust to species extinctions than in the past. Our results illustrate the long-term and far-reaching consequences human activities can have on marine food webs and ecosystems.

Author Contributions

HKL and MC designed the study, performed the research, analyzed the data, contributed new methods or models, HKL, MC and JAD wrote the paper.