, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 71-83

Radical changes in the Wadden Sea fauna and flora over the last 2,000 years

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Abstract

Humans have interacted with the Wadden Sea since its origin 7,500 years ago. However, exploitation, habitat alteration and pollution have strongly increased since the Middle Ages, affecting abundance and distribution of many marine mammals, birds, fish, invertebrates and plants. Large whales and some large birds disappeared more than 500 years ago. Most small whales, seals, birds, large fish and oysters were severely reduced by the late 19th and early 20th centuries, leading to the collapse of several traditional fisheries. In the 20th century, conservation efforts have enabled some breeding birds and seals to recover. But other species declined further due to continuing exploitation, habitat destruction, pollution and eutrophication. Moreover, complex three-dimensional habitats such as oyster banks, Sabellaria reefs and subtidal eelgrass beds have been lost completely. In contrast, several opportunistic species such as gulls, polychaetes, green algae and exotic invaders increased during the 20th century. Taken together, multiple human impacts have caused dramatic losses of large predators and habitat-building species in the Wadden Sea over the last 500 years. Although still of high natural value and global importance, the Wadden Sea is a fundamentally changed ecosystem. On the other hand, reduced hunting pressure, increased habitat protection and reduced river pollution have enabled the recent recovery of several species and an increase in environmental quality. These successes, together with a historical vision of what was once possible, should guide current and future conservation, restoration and management efforts towards a more sustainable interaction between man and the sea.

Communicated by H.K. Lotze and K. Reise