The unintended consequences of simplifying the sea: making the case for complexity

Leigh Michael Howarth, Callum Michael Roberts, Ruth Helen Thurstan, Bryce Donald Stewart

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


Many over-exploited marine ecosystems worldwide have lost their natural populations of large predatory finfish and have become dominated by crustaceans and other invertebrates. Controversially, some of these simplified ecosystems have gone on to support highly successful invertebrate fisheries capable of generating more economic value than the fisheries they replaced. Such systems have been compared with those created by modern agriculture on land, in that existing ecosystems have been converted into those that maximize the production of target species. Here, we draw on a number of concepts and case-studies to argue that this is highly risky. In many cases, the loss of large finfish has triggered dramatic ecosystem shifts to states that are both ecologically and economically undesirable, and difficult and expensive to reverse. In addition, we find that those stocks left remaining are unusually prone to collapse from disease, invasion, eutrophication and climate change. We therefore conclude that the transition from multispecies fisheries to simplified invertebrate fisheries is causing a global decline in biodiversity and is threatening global food security, rather than promoting it.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)690-711
JournalFish and fisheries
Early online date20 May 2013
Publication statusPublished - 2014


  • Ecosystem Change

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