In the Baltic Sea, increased dominance of ephemeral and bloom-forming algae is presently attributed to increased nutrient loads. Simultaneously, coastal predatory fish are in strong decline. Using field data from nine areas covering a 700-km coastline, we examined whether formation of macroalgal blooms could be linked to the composition of the fish community. We then tested whether predator or nutrient availability could explain the field patterns in two small-scale field experiments, by comparing joint effects on algal net production from nutrient enrichment with agricultural fertilizer and exclusion of larger predatory fish with cages. We also manipulated the presence of invertebrate grazers.
The abundance of piscivorous fish had a strong negative correlation with the large-scale distribution of bloom-forming macroalgae. Areas with depleted top-predator communities displayed massive increases in their prey, small-bodied fish, and high covers of ephemeral algae. Combining the results from the two experiments showed that excluding larger piscivorous fish: (1) increased the abundance of small-bodied predatory fish; (2) changed the size distribution of the dominating grazers, decreasing the smaller gastropod scrapers; and (3) increased the net production of ephemeral macroalgae. Effects of removing top predators and nutrient enrichment were similar and additive, together increasing the abundance of ephemeral algae many times. Predator effects depended on invertebrate grazers; in the absence of invertebrates there were no significant effects of predator exclusion on algal production. Our results provide strong support for regional declines of larger predatory fish in the Baltic Sea promoting algal production by decreasing invertebrate grazer control. This highlights the importance of trophic interactions for ecosystem responses to eutrophication. The view emerges that to achieve management goals for water quality we need to consider the interplay between top-down and bottom-up processes in future ecosystem management of marine resources.