Field experimental evidence that grazers mediate transition between microalgal and seagrass dominance

Pamela L. Reynolds, J. Paul Richardson and J. Emmett Duffy

Limnol. Oceanogr., 59(3), 2014, 1053-1064 | DOI: 10.4319/lo.2014.59.3.1053

ABSTRACT: We tested the relative effects of nutrient loading, reduced predation, and reduced grazing on eelgrass community dynamics in Chesapeake Bay and found evidence supporting the “mutualistic mesograzer model” in which small invertebrate grazers control accumulation of epiphytic algae, buffer eutrophication effects, and thus facilitate seagrass dominance. Experimental reduction of crustacean grazers in the field stimulated a nearly sixfold increase in epiphytic algae, and reduced seagrass biomass by 65% compared to controls with grazers. Nutrient fertilization generally had much weaker effects, but an interaction with mesograzers was key in changing the sign of fertilization effects on the system: aboveground eelgrass biomass was reduced by fertilization under reduced grazing, but increased by fertilization under ambient grazing. When protected from predators in field cages, these mesograzers limited epiphyte blooms even with nutrient enrichment, and nutrients instead enhanced grazer secondary production. Crustacean mesograzers play a key role in maintaining macrophyte (seagrass) dominance in Chesapeake Bay, in buffering eelgrass against eutrophication, and in efficiently transferring nitrogen to higher trophic levels. Yet, these crustacean grazers are also highly sensitive to predator abundance. Reducing nutrient pollution alone is unlikely to restore seagrass meadows where alterations to food webs have reduced populations of algae-feeding mesograzers. Integration of both water quality and fishery management will be more effective in restoring and maintaining healthy coastal ecosystems.

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