Global nutrient cycling by commercially targeted marine fish

Priscilla Le Mézo, Jérôme Guiet, Kim Scherrer, Daniele Bianchi, Eric Galbraith

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleResearchpeer-review


Throughout the course of their lives fish ingest food containing essential elements, including nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), and iron (Fe). Some of these elements are retained in the fish body to build new biomass, which acts as a stored reservoir of nutrients, while the rest is excreted or egested, providing a recycling flux to water. Fishing activity has modified the fish biomass distribution worldwide and consequently may have altered fish-mediated nutrient cycling, but this possibility remains largely unassessed, mainly due to the difficulty of estimating global fish biomass and metabolic rates. Here we quantify the role of commercially targeted marine fish between 10 g and 100 kg () in the cycling of N, P, and Fe in the global ocean and its change due to fishing activity, by using a global size-spectrum model of marine fish populations calibrated to observations of fish catches. Our results show that the amount of nutrients potentially stored in the global pristine biomass is generally small compared to the ambient surface nutrient concentrations but might be significant in the nutrient-poor regions of the world: the North Atlantic for P, the oligotrophic gyres for N, and the high-nutrient, low-chlorophyll (HNLC) regions for Fe. Similarly, the rate of nutrient removal from the ocean through fishing is globally small compared to the inputs but can be important locally, especially for Fe in the equatorial Pacific and along the western margin of South America and Africa. We also estimate that the cycling rate of elements through biomass was on the order of 3 % of the primary productivity demand for N, P, and Fe globally, prior to industrial fishing. The corresponding export of nutrients by egestion of fecal matter by was 2.3 % (N), 3.0 % (P), and 1 %–22 % (Fe) of the total particulate export flux and was generally more significant in the low-export oligotrophic tropical gyres. Our study supports a significant, direct role of the fraction of the ichthyosphere in global nutrient cycling, most notably for Fe, which has been substantially modified by industrial fishing. Although we were not able to estimate the roles of smaller species such as mesopelagic fish because of the sparsity of observational data, fishing is also likely to have altered their biomass significantly through trophic cascades, with impacts on biogeochemical cycling that could be of comparable magnitude to the changes we assess here.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)2537-2555
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 18 May 2022

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