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Keywords:

  • algal turfs;
  • alternative stable states;
  • azores;
  • community stability;
  • conservation;
  • over-harvesting;
  • Patella candei;
  • press-disturbance;
  • restoration

Summary

1. The possibility that different assemblages of species may represent alternative stable states has been the subject of much theoretical and empirical work. Alternative stable states may in theory arise from a perturbation of sufficient magnitude that pushes an assemblage from one stable equilibrium point to another. Overfishing is one such disturbance that can lead to cascading community-level effects. Yet, whether these different assemblages represent alternative stable states or are the consequence of chronic disturbance from fishing is still a matter of debate. Understanding the mechanisms that drive community stability is fundamental if we are to assess the consequences of anthropogenic impacts on the structure and function of ecosystems to better inform management of disturbed habitats.

2. To investigate the extent to which present-day community state is stable versus being maintained by chronic exploitation, we manipulated the time and intensity of physical disturbance and grazing by limpets in a system where over-harvesting of limpets has led to a regional-scale shift in community structure to one in which algal turfs have replaced barnacles as the primary space occupier in the mid-intertidal.

3. After a 1-year period since disturbance was applied, assemblages in disturbed areas were significantly different from undisturbed areas, but the timing of disturbance and its intensity had little effect on the outcome of succession. Undisturbed areas were highly resistant to new colonization and persisted unchanged throughout the study period.

4. Manipulation of limpet abundance in disturbed patches showed that, where present, limpets successfully prevented the recolonization of space by algal turfs. Moreover, there was evidence that grazing by limpets at the turf/open-rock boundary effectively pushed the turfs back, extending the area of open-rock.

5.Synthesis and applications. Our findings provide evidence that in this system the dominance by algal turfs does not represent an alternative stable state but that chronic exploitation of limpets leads to the persistence of this community. Conservation strategies aimed at protecting or enhancing limpet abundances (e.g. no-take marine reserves) should allow the gradual restoration of this community to its pre-disturbed state.