European coastal monitoring programmes may fail to identify impacts on benthic macrofauna caused by bottom trawling

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Bottom trawling (hereafter trawling) is the dominant human pressure impacting continental shelves globally. However, due to ongoing data deficiencies for smaller coastal vessels, the effects of trawling on nearshore seabed ecosystems are poorly understood. In Europe, the Water Framework Directive (WFD) provides a framework for the protection and improvement of coastal water bodies. It requires member states to track the status of ‘biological quality elements’ (including benthic macrofauna) using WFD-specific ecological indicators. While many of these metrics are sensitive to coastal pressures such as nutrient enrichment, little is known about their ability to detect trawling impacts. Here, we analysed a comprehensive data set of 5885 nearshore benthic samples – spatiotemporally matched to high-resolution trawling and environmental data – to examine how these pressures affect coastal benthos. In addition, we investigated the ability of 8 widely-used benthic monitoring metrics to detect impacts on benthic biological quality. We found that abundance (N) and species richness (S) were strongly impacted by bottom trawling. A clear response to trawling was also observed for the WFD-specific Benthic Quality Index (BQI). Relationships between N and S, and trawling were particularly consistent across the study area, indicating sensitivity across varying environmental conditions. In contrast, WFD indices such as AZTIs Marine Biotic Index (AMBI), multivariate AMBI (M-AMBI), and the Danish Quality Index (DKI), were unresponsive to trawling. In fact, some of the most heavily trawled areas examined were classified as being of ‘high/good ecological status’ by these indices. A likely explanation for this is that the indices are calculated using species sensitivity scores, based on expected species response to eutrophication and chemical pollution. While the BQI also uses species sensitivity scores, these are based on observed responses to disturbance gradients comprising a range of coastal pressures. Given the prominent use of AMBI and DKI throughout Europe, our results highlight the considerable risk that the metrics used to assess Good Ecological Status (GES) under the WFD may fail to identify trawling impacts. As trawling represents a widespread source of coastal disturbance, fishing impacts on benthic macrofauna may be underestimated, or go undetected, in many coastal monitoring programmes around Europe.
Original languageEnglish
Article number117510
JournalJournal of Environmental Management
Number of pages11
Publication statusPublished - 2023


  • benthic quality
  • Ecological indicators
  • Fisheries effects
  • Good ecological status (GES)
  • Seabed disturbance
  • Water framework directive (WFD)


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