U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
EPA Science Advisory Board
Background Information

Document NameFactors in the decline of coastal ecosystems.
Document AuthorBoesch, D.F.
Burreson, E.
Dennison, W.
Houde, E.
Kemp, M.
Kennedy, V.
Newell, R.
Paynter, K.
Orth, R.
Ulanowicz, R.
Short DescriptionScience, 293, 1589-1590.
CategorySubgroup 3: Scientific Basis for Goals and Management Options
Publication Year2001

Letter to the Editor: In their review "historical overfishing and the recent collapse of coastal ecosystems," Jeremy B. C. Jackson and colleagues argue for the "primacy" of overfishing in the collapse, in contrast to pollution, species introductions, climate change, diseases, and other human impacts (special issue on Ecology Through Time, 27 Jul., p. 629). They suggest that overfishing had the earliest impacts and was a necessary precondition for the occurrence of other maladies. Although we agree that fishing has contributed to major changes in coastal ecosystems, we believe Jackson and co-authors overstate the case for its primacy. The overfishing and nutrient pollution of coastal seas, for example, have frequently proceeded simultaneously and contributed to degradation synergistically (1).
In Chesapeake Bay, as the authors point out, the process of eutrophication began with land clearing in the 18th century, well before the mechanized harvest of oysters in the late 19th century. Although most of the filtration capacity of oyster populations had been reduced by the 1930s, the dramatic intensification of hypoxia and the extensive loss of seagrasses occurred later, during the last half of the 20th century, associated with a more than doubling of the already elevated nitrogen loading (2).
Recognizing that rebuilding oyster populations could help to mitigate planktonic overproduction due to nutrient pollution (3), the multistate Chesapeake Bay Program has established the ambitious goal of a 10-fold increase in oyster biomass. But restoration of oysters even to precolonial abundances is unlikely to eliminate algal blooms and hypoxia and recover seagrasses without also significantly reducing nutrient loading. Decreasing bottom-up stimulation and increasing top-down controls will be required.
Although the degradation of oyster reefs by overfishing might have made oysters more susceptible to endemic diseases, a particularly virulent pathogen (Haplosporidum nelsoni) was introduced from a nonindigenous oyster host in the 1950s (4). This introduced disease now greatly limits the ability to reestablish oyster populations.
Similarly, it is not likely that intact populations of large consumers, such as green turtles and sea cows, would have prevented the deleterious consequences of nutrient pollution, sedimentation, and other human-induced stresses on tropical seagrass ecosystems witnessed in the late 20th century in such regions as Australia (5) and Florida Bay (6). And there were no similar large consumers of temperate seagrasses, which have also undergone decline. Regardless of the historical sequence of human stresses, amelioration of multiple stresses must take a multi-pronged approach to restore coastal ecosystems.