While the direct physical impact on seabed biota is well understood, no studies have defined thresholds to inform an ecosystem-based approach to managing fishing impacts. We addressed this knowledge gap using a large-scale experiment that created a controlled gradient of fishing intensity and assessed the immediate impacts and short-term recovery. We observed a mosaic of taxon-specific responses at various thresholds. The lowest threshold of significant lasting impact occurred between 1 and 3 times fished and elicited a decrease in abundance of 39 to 70% for some sessile epifaunal organisms (cnidarians, bryozoans). This contrasted with significant increases in abundance and/or biomass of scavenging species (epifaunal echinoderms, infaunal crustaceans) by two to four-fold in areas fished twice and more. In spite of these significant specific responses, the benthic community structure, biomass and abundance at the population level appeared resilient to fishing. Overall, natural temporal variation in community metrics exceeded the effects of fishing in this highly dynamic study site, suggesting that an acute level of disturbance (fished over six times) would match the level of natural variation. We discuss the implications of our findings for natural resources management with respect to context-specific human disturbance and provide guidance for best fishing practices.
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