The Effects of Fishing on Marine Ecosystems

Simon Jennings*, Michel J. Kaiser

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

1242 Citations (Scopus)


We review the effects of fishing on benthic fauna, habitat, diversity, community structure and trophic interactions in tropical, temperate and polar marine environments and consider whether it is possible to predict or manage fishing-induced changes in marine ecosystems. Such considerations are timely given the disillusionment with some fishery management strategies and that policy makers need a scientific basis for deciding whether they should respond to social, economic and political demands for instituting or preventing ecosystem-based management. Fishing has significant direct and indirect effects on habitat, and on the diversity, structure and productivity of benthic communities. These effects are most readily identified and last longest in those areas that experience infrequent natural disturbance. The initiation of fishing in an unfished system leads to dramatic changes in fish community structure. As fishing intensity increases the additional effects are more difficult to detect. Fishing has accelerated and magnified natural declines in the abundance of many forage fishes and this has lead to reduced reproductive success and abundance in birds and marine mammals. However, such donor-controlled dynamics are less apparent in food webs where fishes are the top predators since their feeding strategies are rather more plastic than those of most birds and mammals. Fishers tend to target species in sequence as a fishery develops and this leads to changes in the composition of the fished communities with time. The dramatic and apparently compensatory shifts in the biomass of different species in many fished ecosystems have often been driven by environmental change rather than the indirect effects of fishing. Indeed, in most pelagic systems, species replacements would have occurred, albeit less rapidly, in the absence of fishing pressure. In those cases when predator or prey species fill a key role, fishing can have dramatic indirect effects on community structure. Thus fishing has shifted some coral reef ecosystems to alternate stable states because there is tight predator-prey coupling between invertebrate feeding fishes and sea urchins. Fishing has reduced, and locally extirpated, populations of predatory fishes. These reductions do not have a consistent effect on the abundance and diversity of their prey: environmental processes control prey populations in some systems, whereas top-down processes are more important in others. By-catch which is discarded during fishing activities may sustain populations of scavenging species, particularly seabirds. We conclude by identifying the circumstances in which new research is needed to guide managers and stress the importance of unfished control sites for studies of fishing effects. We discuss the advantages and disadvantages of closed area management (marine reserves) and the conditions under which such management is likely to provide benefits for the fishery or ecosystem.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)201-212
Number of pages12
JournalAdvances in Marine Biology
Publication statusPublished - 1998

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
  • Aquatic Science


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