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Keywords:

  • Baltic Sea Action Plan;
  • ensemble modelling;
  • GAM ;
  • Maxent;
  • Random Forest;
  • scenario analysis;
  • Secchi depth;
  • species distribution models

Summary

  1. Eutrophication is severely affecting species distributions and ecosystem functioning in coastal areas. Targets for eutrophication reduction have been set in the Baltic Sea Action Plan (BSAP) using Secchi depth, a measure of water transparency, as the main status indicator. Despite the high economic costs involved, the potential effects of this political decision on key species and habitats have not been assessed.

  2. In a case study including species central to coastal ecosystem functioning, we modelled the effects of changing Secchi depth on the distribution of bladderwrack Fucus vesiculosus and eelgrass Zostera marina vegetation as well as recruitment areas of the main predatory fish species, perch Perca fluviatilis and pikeperch Sander lucioperca. Specifically, we explored the effects of changing Secchi depth on species distributions under a set of scenarios based on the BSAP, using three fundamentally different modelling techniques: maximum entropy, generalized additive and random forest modelling.

  3. Improved Secchi depth (reduced eutrophication) was predicted to cause a substantial increase in the distribution of bladderwrack, while the distribution of eelgrass remained largely unaffected. For the fish, a large increase in perch recruitment areas was predicted and a concurrent decrease in recruitment areas of pikeperch. These changes are likely to have effects on biodiversity and ecosystem services.

  4. The three modelling methods exposed differences in the quantitative predictions for species with a weaker coupling to Secchi depth. Qualitatively, however, the results were consistent for all species.

  5. Synthesis and applications. We show how ecological effects of environmental policies can be evaluated in an explicit spatial context using species distribution modelling. The model-specific responses to changes in eutrophication status emphasize the importance of using ensemble modelling for exploring how species distributions may respond to alternative management regimes. A pronounced difference in response between species suggests that eutrophication mitigation will have consequences for ecosystem functioning, and thus ecosystem goods and services, by inducing changes in the simple food webs of the Baltic Sea. These model predictions form a basis for spatially explicit cost-benefit estimates under different scenarios, providing valuable information for both decision-makers and the wider society.