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Timing anthropogenic stressors to mitigate their impact on marine ecosystem resilience

Timing anthropogenic stressors to mitigate their impact on marine ecosystem resilience

Better mitigation of anthropogenic stressors on marine ecosystems is urgently needed to address increasing biodiversity losses worldwide. We explore opportunities for stressor mitigation using whole-of-systems modelling of ecological resilience, accounting for complex interactions between stressors, their timing and duration, background environmental conditions and biological processes. We then search for ecological windows, times when stressors minimally impact ecological resilience, defined here as risk, recovery and resistance. We show for 28 globally distributed seagrass meadows that stressor scheduling that exploits ecological windows for dredging campaigns can achieve up to a fourfold reduction in recovery time and 35% reduction in extinction risk. Although the timing and length of windows vary among sites to some degree, global trends indicate favourable windows in autumn and winter. Our results demonstrate that resilience is dynamic with respect to space, time and stressors, varying most strongly with: (i) the life history of the seagrass genus and (ii) the duration and timing of the impacting stress.

Anthropogenic stressors are degrading valuable marine ecosystems worldwide, particularly in coastal areas with high levels of human development1,2,3. Corals4, seagrasses5,6 and mangroves7 are all rapidly declining globally, at least in part due to stressors associated with water quality, including light reduction, exposure of toxins and smothering by sediments. However, currently available approaches for mitigating the effects of these stressors are often limited by a poor understanding of how anthropogenic stressors and natural disturbance interact to influence myriad ecological processes. Such complex interactions can produce non-linear, additive and synergistic cumulative responses8.

A key measure of impact captured by the emergent response of an ecosystem to a stressor is resilience8,9. As resilience is an emergent property of a system under this definition, it is underpinned by concepts of time, baseline and alternate processes and structures, and sets of metrics and criteria to quantify such processes and structures. However, tools for quantitatively evaluating resilience under changing ecological baselines remain a key challenge10. Here, we model complex ecological interactions to quantify resilience to an impact using three widely applied criteria: (1) resistance8,11, the loss of individuals and/or species as the result of stress, (2) recovery12, the expected recovery time and (3) persistence9 or risk of local extinction (probability of zero population of a species) following stress. We focus on ecological resilience10 as first proposed by Holling9 rather than engineering resilience which focuses exclusively on recovery10. The former is a broader definition centred around the set of processes and structures describing an ecosystem and is widely applied in ecology10.

Resilience in response to a stressor could be improved by taking advantage of ecological windows, periods planned in advance during which a specific stressor can occur with minimal impact on an organism or ecosystem13. Windows have been used to manage anthropogenic activities such as dredging14. Ecological windows differ from environmental windows detailed in existing regulatory frameworks (eg, U.S.A. National Environmental Policy Act 1969), which typically do not consider site-specific biological, environmental and stressor interactions14. Ecological windows also differ from windows of opportunity15,16, which have a broader socio-ecological focus where typically unplanned events can trigger opportunities for wide-scale institutional and ecological changes.