We assessed the relative importance of bottom–up and top–down processes in structuring an eelgrass community in Sweden, a system impacted both by eutrophication and overfishing. Using artificial seagrass as substrate, we manipulated nutrient levels and predator abundance in a full-factorial cage-experiment.
The results revealed a seagrass community dominated by strong top–down processes controlling the aggregate biomass of mesograzers and macroalgae. In the absence of predators the large amphipod Gammarus locusta became very abundant resulting in a leaf community with low biomass of algae and smaller mobile fauna. One enclosed gobid fish predator reduced the abundance of adult G. locusta by >90%, causing a three to six times increase in the biomass of algae, smaller mesograzers and meiofauna. Numerous small predators in uncaged habitats reduced the biomass of G. locusta and other mesograzers by >95% in comparison to the fish treatment, further increasing the biomass of epiphytic algae and meiofauna. Although water column nutrient enrichment caused a temporal bloom of the filamentous macroalgae Ulva spp., no significant nutrient-effects were found on the algal community at the end of the experiment. The only lasting nutrient-effect was a significant increase in the biomass of G. locusta, but only in the absence of ambient predators.
These results demonstrate that mesograzers can respond to enhanced food supply, increase their biomass and control the algal growth when predation rates are low. However, in the assessed system, high predation rates appear to make mesograzers functionally extinct, causing a community-wide trophic cascade that promotes the growth of ephemeral algae. This top–down effect could penetrate down, despite a complex food-web because the interaction strength in the community was strongly skewed towards two functionally dominant algal and grazer species that were vulnerable to consumption. These results indicate that overexploitation of gadoid fish may be linked to increased macroalgal blooms and loss of eelgrass in the area through a trophic cascade affecting the abundance of mesograzers.