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Keywords:

  • abundance–body mass relationships;
  • allometry;
  • energetic equivalence;
  • fishing effects;
  • metabolic scaling theory;
  • predator–prey relationships;
  • size spectra

Summary

  • 1
    Fishing changes the structure of fish communities and the relative impacts of fishing are assessed usefully against a baseline. A comparable baseline in all regions is fish community structure in the absence of fishing.
  • 2
    The structure of unexploited communities cannot always be predicted from historical data because fisheries exploitation usually precedes scientific investigation and non-fisheries impacts, such as climate change, modify ecosystems over time.
  • 3
    We propose a method, based on macroecological theory, to predict the abundance and size-structure of an unexploited fish community from a theoretical abundance–body mass relationship (size spectrum).
  • 4
    We apply the method in the intensively fished North Sea and compare the predicted structure of the unexploited fish community with contemporary community data.
  • 5
    We suggest that the current biomass of large fishes weighing 4–16 kg and 16–66 kg, respectively, is 97·4% and 99·2% lower than in the absence of fisheries exploitation. The results suggest that depletion of large fishes due to fisheries exploitation exceeds that described in many short-term studies.
  • 6
    Biomass of the contemporary North Sea fish community (defined as all fishes with body mass 64 g−66 kg) is 38% lower than predicted in the absence of exploitation, while the mean turnover time is almost twice as fast (falls from 3·5 to 1·9 years) and 70% less primary production is required to sustain it.
  • 7
    The increased turnover time of the fish community will lead to greater interannual instability in biomass and production, complicating management action and increasing the sensitivity of populations to environmental change.
  • 8
    This size-based method based on macroecological theory may provide a powerful new tool for setting ecosystem indicator reference levels, comparing fishing impacts in different ecosystems and for assessing the relative impacts of fishing and climate change.