Overfishing of large predatory fish populations has resulted in lasting restructurings of entire marine food webs worldwide, with serious socio-economic consequences. Fortunately, some degraded ecosystems show signs of recovery. A key challenge for ecosystem management is to anticipate the degree to which recovery is possible. By applying a statistical food-web model, using the Baltic Sea as a case study, we show that under current temperature and salinity conditions, complete recovery of this heavily altered ecosystem will be impossible. Instead, the ecosystem regenerates towards a new ecological baseline. This new baseline is characterized by lower and more variable biomass of cod, the commercially most important fish stock in the Baltic Sea, even under very low exploitation pressure. Furthermore, a socio-economic assessment shows that this signal is amplified at the level of societal costs, owing to increased uncertainty in biomass and reduced consumer surplus. Specifically, the combined economic losses amount to approximately 120 million € per year, which equals half of today's maximum economic yield for the Baltic cod fishery. Our analyses suggest that shifts in ecological and economic baselines can lead to higher economic uncertainty and costs for exploited ecosystems, in particular, under climate change.
Keywords: Baltic Sea, cod, food-web dynamics, regime shifts, shifting baseline, ecosystem-based management
Citation: Blenckner, T., M. Llope, C. Möllman, R. Voss, M. Quass, M. Casini, M. Lindegren, C. Folke, and N.C. Stenseth. 2015 Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences 282:20142809-20142809.