We studied the effects of commercial harvest of blue mussels Mytilus edulis on eelgrass Zostera marina L. in Maquoit Bay, Maine, USA, at a hierarchy of scales. We used aerial photography, underwater video, and eelgrass population- and shoot-based measurements to quantify dragging impacts within 4 sites that had been disturbed at different times over an approximate 7 yr interval, and to project eelgrass meadow recovery rates. Dragging had disturbed 10% of the eelgrass cover in Maquoit Bay, with dragged sites ranging from 3.4 to 31.8 ha in size. Dragging removed above- and below-ground plant material from the majority of the bottom in the disturbed sites. One year following dragging, eelgrass shoot density, shoot height and total biomass of disturbed sites averaged respectively 2 to 3%, 46 to 61% and < 1% that of the reference sites. Substantial differences in eelgrass biomass persisted between disturbed and reference sites up to 7 yr after dragging. Dragging did not affect physical characteristics of the sediment. The pattern and rate of eelgrass bed recovery depended strongly on initial dragging intensity; areas of relatively light dragging with many remnant eelgrass patches (i.e. patches that were missed by the mussel dredge) showed considerable revegetation in 1 yr. However, by developing recovery trajectories from measurements at sites disturbed in different years, we projected that it would require a mean of 10.6 yr for recovery of eelgrass shoot density within the areas of intense dragging characterizing most of the disturbed sites. A spatial simulation model based on measured rates of lateral patch-expansion (mean 12.5 cm yr(-1)) and new-patch recruitment (mean 0.19 patches m(-2) yr(-1)) yielded a mean bed recovery time of 9 to 11 yr following dragging, depending on initial degree of plant removal. Model simulations suggested that with favorable environmental conditions, eelgrass beds might recover from dragging disturbance in 6 yr; conversely, recovery under conditions less conducive to eelgrass growth could require 20 yr or longer. This study shows that mussel dragging poses a severe threat to eelgrass in this region and that regulations to protect eelgrass from dragging impacts would maintain the integrity of a substantial amount of habitat.
Additional publication details
Disturbance of eelgrass Zostera marina by commercial mussel Mytilus edulis harvesting in Maine: dragging impacts and habitat recovery