THE ROLE OF SHARKS IN MARINE ECOSYSTEMS: EVALUATING OVEREXPLOITED MARINE FISH COMMUNITIES TO DETECT LONG-TERM EFFECTS OF PREDATOR REMOVAL
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Elasmobranchs are among the oldest and most successful predators in the ocean, yet one of the most vulnerable to the direct and indirect effects of fishing. Many populations are rapidly declining around the world, and an increasing number is listed as threatened or endangered. The broader ecosystem consequences of these declines, and whether other marine predators can replace sharks, are open questions. In this thesis, I used a diverse set of data and modeling techniques to analyze long-term changes in elasmobranch populations in the Mediterranean Sea, and the consequences of shark declines on marine ecosystems. Because of its long history of fishing, the Mediterranean offers a unique perspective on the response of marine communities to exploitation over long time scales. Here, I reconstructed the history of elasmobranch exploitation over the past 200 years in pelagic, coastal and demersal communities. Results were combined meta-analytically to derive a general pattern of change for the entire region. Overall, I detected multiple cases of regional species extirpations, a strong correlation between historical intensity of exploitation and the stage of community degradation, and some cases of compensatory species increases. My results suggest that compared to other marine ecosystems worldwide, the Mediterranean Sea might be in an advanced stage of overexploitation. To gain more general conclusions about the patterns and consequences of shark declines in the ocean, I reviewed and reanalyzed documented changes in exploited elasmobranch communities around the world, and synthesized the effects of sharks on their prey and wider communities. This work revealed that sharks are abundant and diverse in little exploited or unexploited marine ecosystems but vulnerable to even light levels of fishing. The decline in large sharks has reduced natural mortality in a range of their prey, contributing to changes in abundance, distribution, and behaviour of marine megafauna that have few other predators. In some cases, this has resulted in cascading changes in prey populations and food-web structure. Overall, my thesis greatly enhanced our knowledge about the critical state of elasmobranchs in the Mediterranean Sea and the consequences of the declines of these important marine predators on marine ecosystems.