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Keywords:

  • Before-and-after-impact design;
  • benthic macrofauna;
  • Cerastoderma edule;
  • cockle fishery effects;
  • short and mid-long term;
  • species composition

Abstract

To study the possible environmental impact of hydraulic cockle-dredging on macrobenthic communities and the environment, a fishing experiment was executed on a tidal mudflat in the Oosterschelde (SW Netherlands) according to a BACI (before-after-control-impact) design. Following the characterization of the initial situation, a part of the mudflat was commercially fished, after which dredged and undredged areas were compared on the basis of macrofauna descriptors and sediment constitution approximately 2 months (short term) and 1 year (mid-long term) after fishing. Whereas a clear reduction of the larger Cerastoderma edule cockles (>23 mm) in the fished areas was found, no effect of dredging on total macrofauna densities or median grain size was observed. No negative effect of fishing on total macrofauna biomass was found; in contrast, an increase of the biomass of the non-target species almost compensated for the loss in weight due to the extraction of the larger cockles. No significant effect of dredging on species diversity, richness or evenness was found in the short or mid-long term, these descriptors tending to have increased rather than decreased in the dredged plots after 1 year. The selective fishing for larger cockles reduced the average cockle size, but 1 year after fishing the average size had returned to the initial values in the dredged area. However, compared to the control area, the average size might still be reduced, as the size of the cockles in the control area also increased during the year. Local environmental conditions, with their specific macrobenthic communities, seem to be crucial for the type of effects and the impact of dredging. It is therefore of eminent importance to follow a research design with pre-defined environmental conditions, rather than a comparison of different areas that are open or closed to fisheries. The present study based on a BACI approach indicates that mechanical cockle fisheries had no overall negative impact in our study area.