Environmental Conservation


Status, trends and the future of the marine pelagic ecosystem

Peter G. Verity a1c1, Victor Smetacek a2 and Theodore J. Smayda a3
a1 Skidaway Institute of Oceanography, 10 Ocean Science Circle, Savannah, GA 31411, USA
a2 Alfred-Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Am Handelshafen 12, 27570 Bremerhaven, Germany
a3 Graduate School of Oceanography, University of Rhode Island, Kingston, RI 02881, USA


Globally, humans impact environments and ecosystems faster than they become aware of their effects. The marine pelagic ecosystem includes a tremendously large and diverse environment, which might accordingly be considered to be resilient to externally forced changes, whether from humans or climate. This review considers that general hypothesis by pursuing two objectives. The first is to document the current status of and recent anthropogenic impacts on the marine pelagic ecosystem, with emphasis on the epipelagic zone (0-200 m) where organisms are concentrated and human impacts have been greatest. It shows that humans have proven capable of assuming the role of top carnivore in pelagic ecosystems where living resources are attractive and financially amenable to exploitation, and that overexploitation is the rule under such circumstances. Other anthropogenic activities associated with changes in various marine pelagic ecosystems, such as increased diseases, mortalities, extinctions, habitat invasions, and species replacements, function as sentinels and indicate that portions of the pelagic ecosystem are under considerable stress. It is argued that, without attention, these problems can be expected to worsen up to the year 2025 and beyond. In addition to a comprehensive evaluation of status and trends relating to conservation of the marine pelagic ecosystem, a second major objective is to evaluate whether current paradigms of ecosystem function are sufficient to improve the ability of the scientific community to predict future changes and to recommend relevant management strategies. This review differs from previous ones by proposing that current conceptual models have failed to provide the basis for accurately predicting patterns and features of pelagic communities, notably why specific organisms occur where and when they do. It is argued that predation pressure is shaped by natural selection in the sea as on land, and that it influences organism behaviour, life history strategy and morphology, all of which determine marine pelagic ecosystem structure, and therefore should be used to interpret function. From this perspective, attempting to understand present patterns and predict the future of marine pelagic ecosystems, without understanding the intertwined roles of evolution and predation in forging contemporary pelagic communities, is a hopeless endeavour. It is proposed that both perspectives, resource availability and predation pressure, be incorporated into a revised paradigm of pelagic ecosystem structure and function, a necessity if policies are to predict anthropogenic impacts and environmental conservation is to be effective.

(Received May 3 2001)
(Accepted March 22 2002)

Key Words: marine; pelagic; ecosystem; pollution; extinction; invasions.

c1 Correspondence: Dr Peter G. Verity Tel: +1 912 598 2471 Fax: +1 912 598 2310 e-mail: peter@skio.peachnet.edu