, Volume 59, Issue 1, pp 84-95

Human transformations of the Wadden Sea ecosystem through time: a synthesis

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Abstract

Today’s Wadden Sea is a heavily human-altered ecosystem. Shaped by natural forces since its origin 7,500 years ago, humans gradually gained dominance in influencing ecosystem structure and functioning. Here, we reconstruct the timeline of human impacts and the history of ecological changes in the Wadden Sea. We then discuss the ecosystem and societal consequences of observed changes, and conclude with management implications. Human influences have intensified and multiplied over time. Large-scale habitat transformation over the last 1,000 years has eliminated diverse terrestrial, freshwater, brackish and marine habitats. Intensive exploitation of everything from oysters to whales has depleted most large predators and habitat-building species since medieval times. In the twentieth century, pollution, eutrophication, species invasions and, presumably, climate change have had marked impacts on the Wadden Sea flora and fauna. Yet habitat loss and overexploitation were the two main causes for the extinction or severe depletion of 144 species (~20% of total macrobiota). The loss of biodiversity, large predators, special habitats, filter and storage capacity, and degradation in water quality have led to a simplification and homogenisation of the food web structure and ecosystem functioning that has affected the Wadden Sea ecosystem and coastal societies alike. Recent conservation efforts have reversed some negative trends by enabling some birds and mammals to recover and by creating new economic options for society. The Wadden Sea history provides a unique long-term perspective on ecological change, new objectives for conservation, restoration and management, and an ecological baseline that allows us to envision a rich, productive and diverse Wadden Sea ecosystem and coastal society.

Communicated by H.K. Lotze and K. Reise