Predicting the ecosystem effects of harvesting beach-cast kelp for biofuel

  • Kyla Kathleen Orr

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy (awarded by OU/Aberdeen)


Beach-cast kelp (principally Laminaria spp.), known as macroalgal wrack, has been suggested as a feedstock for biofuel. However, to be extracted sustainably it is necessary to understand its ecological role and predict the impacts of its removal. Field-based observations combined with food web modelling were used to predict the ecosystem effects of removing wrack from beaches of the Uists, western Scotland. Beaches with wrack were associated with enriched benthic infauna (polychaetes) on the lower shore, and wrack mounds supported abundant macroinvertebrates (mainly Diptera larvae and oligochaetes); with some of the highest biomasses reported globally for beaches. These fauna are valuable prey to shorebirds, as demonstrated by a strong positive relationship (R2 = 0.82) between wader abundances and the percentage cover of wrack on beaches. Inshore, drifting macroalgae was associated with elevated abundances of detritivorous hyperbenthic fauna (mysids, isopods and gammarid amphipods). In addition, the volume of drifting macroalgae inshore was a significant predictor (along with physical beach characteristics) for the abundance of decapods and fish. Food web models and network analysis indicated that beaches which accumulate wrack had a greater diversity of trophic links and more functional redundancy, making their food webs more resilient to perturbations. Such perturbations may include stressors induced by climate change, such as increased erosion of sediments during storms, elevated atmospheric and sea surface temperatures and elevated CO2 concentrations. Model simulations of wrack harvesting predicted an immediate decline in primary consumers in direct proportion to the quantity of wrack removed, and a slow decline in shorebirds in response to reduced prey. Primary consumers were predicted to recover to their pre-harvest biomasses within 1 to 2 years regardless of harvesting intensity, but recovery times for shorebirds were an order of magnitude longer, and increased with harvesting intensity. Harvesting more than 50% wrack predicted a ‘collapse’ in wader populations within 25 years, and recovery times of 45-60 years were estimated if >70% wrack was removed. The findings of this thesis suggest wrack provides essential food and shelter to coastal fauna, and its large-scale removal would have significant negative impacts to the ecosystem functioning.
Date of Award4 Dec 2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • University of Edinburgh
SupervisorJohanna Heymans (Supervisor), Tom Wilding (Supervisor) & David Hughes (Supervisor)

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