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Mar Pollut Bull. 2001 Sep;42(9):749-60.

Effects of fish farm loadings on seagrass (Posidonia oceanica) distribution, growth and photosynthesis.

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Departamento de Ecología e Hidrología, Facultad de Biología, Universidad de Murcia, Spain.


The spatial extent and timing of the impact of fish farms on the distribution and performance of a Posidonia oceanica meadow were examined in an embayment of the south-eastern coast of Spain (Hornillo Bay, Murcia). Changes in seagrass distribution were determined using available seagrass mapping (from 1988, i.e., before the onset of aquaculture activities and 1998) and by successive sampling in 1994 and 1998. Environmental variables (light attenuation coefficient, water-column dissolved nutrients and organic content of sediments) together with plant performance (shoot biomass, leaf growth rate, photosynthetic activity, carbohydrate reserves, the number of leaves per shoot, epiphyte loads and herbivore pressure) were measured in plants affected by organic discharges, and were compared with those found in reference healthy plants over an annual growth cycle. Since the onset of fish farm activity, 11.29 ha of P. oceanica meadow has been completely lost and 9.86 ha significantly degraded, thus resulting in a total affected area which accounts for about 53% of the former meadow, or 7-fold the fish farming area. Unequal propagation of seagrass die-off or degradation reflects the relevance of local factors such as depth and hydrodynamism on the true extent of fish farm impact. Water transparency decreases and dissolved nutrient and organic content of sediments increases in the vicinity of cages compared to distant reference stations, thus supporting the notion of environmental gradients caused by the organic release from cages, which spreads outwards. Shoot size, leaf growth rate and the number of leaves per shoot in plants close to the fish farm decreased. Moreover, low leaf growth and low rhizome carbohydrate concentration (always relative to that found in an undisturbed area) indicated carbon budget imbalances. Since light reduction in the affected area was only modest (31% of light reaching the sea surface, while at the same depth this figure was 39% at the reference site), and light availability was well above the minimum requirement estimated for this species, neither this factor nor epiphyte overgrowth (epiphyte load was lower in the affected area) seem to explain such carbon imbalances or the observed meadow regression. Alternatively, the high herbivore pressure found in the affected zone suggests that overgrazing is one of the main causes of decreasing shoot sizes and hence of carbon imbalance, reduced growth and shoot mortality. The impact of fish farms on seagrasses, therefore, seems to be highly variable and depends on complex interactions between a large number of processes.

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