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date: 09 December 2019

Summary and Keywords

Climate change and fisheries have significantly changed the Baltic Sea ecosystem, with the demise of Eastern Baltic cod (Gadus morhua callarias) being the signature development. Cod in the Central Baltic Sea collapsed in the late 1980s as a result of low reproductive success and overfishing. Low recruitment and hence small year-classes were not able to compensate for fishing pressures far above sustainable levels. Recruitment failure can be mainly related to the absence of North Sea water inflows to the Central Baltic deep basins. These major Baltic inflows (MBIs) occurred regularly until the 1980s, when their frequency decreased to a decadal pattern, a development attributed to changes in atmospheric circulation patterns. MBIs are needed for ventilation of otherwise stagnating Baltic deep waters, and their absence caused reduced oxygen and salinity levels in cod-spawning habitats, limiting egg and larval survival. Climate change, on the other hand, has promoted a warmer environment richer in zooplanktonic food for larval Baltic sprat (Sprattus sprattus). Resulting large year-classes and low predation by the collapsed cod stock caused an outburst of the sprat stock that cascaded down to the zoo- and phytoplankton trophic levels. Furthermore, a large sprat population controlled cod recruitment and hence hindered a recovery of the stock by predation on cod eggs, limiting cod larval food supply.

The change in ecosystem structure and function caused by the collapse of the cod stock was a major part and driver of an ecosystem regime shift in the Central Baltic Sea during the period 1988 to 1993. This reorganization of ecosystem structure involved all trophic levels from piscivorous and planktivorous fish to zoo- and phytoplankton. The observed large-scale ecosystem changes displayed the characteristics of a discontinuous regime shift, initiated by climate-induced changes in the abiotic environment and stabilized by feedback loops in the food web. Discontinuous changes such as regime shifts are characteristically difficult to reverse, and the Baltic ecosystem recently rather shows signs of increasing ecological novelty for which the failed recovery of the cod stock despite a reduction in fishing pressure is a clear symptom. Unusually widespread deficient oxygen conditions in major cod-spawning areas have altered the overall productivity of the population by negatively affecting growth and recruitment. Eutrophication as a consequence of intensive agriculture is the main driver for anoxia in the Baltic Sea amplified by the effects on continuing climate change and stabilized by self-enforcing feedbacks. Developing ecological novelty in the Baltic Sea hence requires true cross-sectoral ecosystem-based management approaches that truly integrate eutrophication combatment, species conservation, and living resources management.

Keywords: Baltic Sea, climate effects, fisheries, regime shifts, ecological novelty

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