Jackson Estuarine Laboratory

Successional development of fouling communities on open ocean aquaculture fish cages in the western Gulf of Maine, USA


Growth of fouling organisms on suspended fish cages is an impediment to aquaculture projects in coastal waters around the world. The present study characterized ecological succession of fouling communities on the netting of fish cages at an open ocean aquaculture site 10 km east of New Hampshire, USA in the western Gulf of Maine. Ecological succession can be defined as the process by which a community moves from a simple level of organization to a more complex community. Routine cleaning of the cages causes loss of organisms and initiation of ecological succession. Experimental panels of nylon net material were deployed at different times of the year and for different durations from September 2002 to September 2003 (eleven sets of 1-month panels, four sets of 3-month panels, two sets of 6-month panels, and one set of 1-year panels), with four replicates of each deployment. Panels were randomly arranged on a grid that was attached to a fish cage at a water depth of ∼ 15 m. There were substantial and significant differences in density and biomass of the total communities of most successional sequences when comparing panels deployed during May–September to those deployed during the cooler months, October–April. However, the blue mussel, Mytilus edulis, dominated in density and biomass in almost every sequence, regardless of time of initiation or duration. Other species that occurred in high numbers and/or biomass were the amphipods Caprella sp. and Jassa marmorata, the molluscs Hiatella arctica and Anomia sp., the seastar Asterias vulgaris, and the anemone Metridium senile. Juveniles and adults of some species were also present in some early (1-month) successional sequences, indicating that migration may be an important process in community development. Some of the dominant species listed above were present in all successional stages (early, intermediate and late), differing only in relative abundances in the community. The consistent dominance of M. edulis, and other differences in successional patterns compared to what has been typically observed for epifaunal communities in the region, were hypothesized to be the result of a combination of factors: a lack of predators such as seastars and fish that typically consume mussels in natural communities, excessive predation by nudibranchs on those species (e.g., Tubularia sp.) normally abundant in early successional stages, year-round availability of mussel larvae, and cage cleaning protocols that do not remove all the organisms present. The introduction of predatory fishes or seastars into or onto the cages might provide some amount of control on the growth of fouling organisms.

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