Oyster (Ostrea edulis) extirpation and ecosystem transformation in the Firth of Forth , Scotland

TitleOyster (Ostrea edulis) extirpation and ecosystem transformation in the Firth of Forth , Scotland
Publication TypeJournal Article
Year of Publication2013
AuthorsThurstan, RH, Hawkins, JP, Raby, L, Roberts, CM
JournalJournal for Nature Conservation

Marine inshore communities, including biogenic habitats have undergone dramatic changes as a result of exploitation, pollution, land-use changes and introduced species. The Firth of Forth on the east coast of Scotland was once home to the most important oyster (Ostrea edulis Linnaeus, 1758) beds in Scotland. 19th and early 20th century fisheries scientists documented the degradation and loss of these beds, yet transformation of the wider benthic community has been little studied. We undertook archival searches, ecological surveys and shell community analysis using radioisotope dated sediment cores to investigate the history of decline of Forth oyster beds over the last 200 years and the changes to its wider biological communities. Quadrat analysis of the present day benthos reveal that soft-sediment communities dominate the Firth of Forth, with little remaining evidence of past oyster beds in places where abundant shell remains were picked up by a survey undertaken in 1895. Queen scallops (Aequipecten opercularis Linnaeus, 1758) and horse mussels (Modiolus modiolus Linnaeus, 1758) were once common within the Forth but have also markedly decreased compared to the earlier survey. Ouranalyses of shell remains suggest that overall mollusc biomass and species richness declined throughout the 19th century and early 20th century, suggesting broader-scale community change as human impacts increased and as habitats degraded. Inshore communities in the Firth of Forth today are less productive and less diverse compared to past states, with evidence suggesting that most of the damage was done by early bottom trawling and dredging activities. Given the pervasive nature of intensive trawling over the past 150 years, the kind of degradation we document for the Firth of Forth is likely to be commonplace within UK inshore communities.