The effect of scallop dredging on Irish Sea benthos: experiments using a closed area
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A 2 km2 area off the southwest coast of the Isle of Man (Irish Sea) has been closed to commercial fishing with mobile gear since March 1989. This area was heavily fished for Pecten maximus (Linnaeus, 1758) prior to closure, and the seabed immediately surrounding the closed area is still one of the most heavily dredged in the Irish Sea. Two methods have been used to study the effect of scallop dredging on the benthos in this closed area and adjacent fished areas. Firstly, twice-yearly grab sampling of experimental plots inside and outside the closed area since 1995 has enabled comparisons of the benthic infauna and epifauna of experimentally dredged plots, undredged control plots and plots exposed to commercial dredging. Secondly, divers have carried out visual transect surveys of P. maximus numbers regularly since closure. Communities of experimentally disturbed plots have become less similar to adjacent undisturbed control areas and more similar to commercially dredged areas. At each sampling date, similarity between dredged samples was greater than between undredged samples. Since 1989, there have been increases in the mean numbers of P. maximus in the closed area. The age structure of the closed area P. maximus population is also different to that outside, with a higher mean age due to the presence of large, old individuals.
These results present strong evidence that scallop dredging alters benthic communities and suggest that the closure of areas to commercial dredging may allow the development of more heterogeneous communities and permit the populations of some species to increase. A common problem with studying fishing disturbance is the lack of good control sites and this work also demonstrates the value of closed areas to scientific studies of demersal fishing.
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