1. The effects of towed bottom-fishing gear on benthic communities is the subject of heated debate, but the generality of trawl effects with respect to gear and habitat types is poorly understood. To address this deficiency we undertook a meta-analysis of 39 published fishing impact studies.
2. Our analysis shows that inter-tidal dredging and scallop dredging have the greatest initial effects on benthic biota, while trawling has less effect. Fauna in stable gravel, mud and biogenic habitats are more adversely affected than those in less consolidated coarse sediments.
3. Recovery rate appears most rapid in these less physically stable habitats, which are generally inhabited by more opportunistic species. However, defined areas that are fished in excess of three times per year (as occurs in parts of the North Sea and Georges Bank) are likely to be maintained in a permanently altered state.
4. We conclude that intuition about how fishing ought to affect benthic communities is generally supported, but that there are substantial gaps in the available data, which urgently need to be filled. In particular, data on impacts and recovery of epifaunal structure-forming benthic communities are badly needed.