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Chemical contaminant effects on marine ecosystem functioning

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Ecosystem functioning underpins the ecosystem services upon which humans rely. Critical functions, such as primary and secondary productivity, are, however, increasingly threatened by a range of anthropogenic stressors. Although the extent of the threat of contamination is large and has been increasing, pollution is one of the least‐studied stressors in ecology. We did a systematic review and critical synthesis of the effects of contaminants on marine and estuarine ecosystem functioning. No other stressors besides toxic chemicals were included in this review. We identified 264 relevant studies across a range of contaminants. Toxic contaminants generally altered marine ecosystem functioning by reducing productivity and increasing respiration. Effects varied, however, according to the type of contaminant and the component(s) of the system studied (e.g. particular trophic levels, functional groups or taxonomic groups). Toxicity studies that included a measure of ecosystem function were strongly biased towards planktonic communities in contrast to studies of biodiversity, which have been dominated by work on soft‐sediment communities. Toxicant studies that included measures of ecosystem function rarely included a measure of biodiversity and rarely interpreted their findings within an ecosystem function context. Studies that included multiple components of an ecosystem, that is more than one functional group of organisms, were more likely to find no effect of contamination, possibly due to ecological interactions. Studies that suffered from unclear or flawed methodology were more likely to find a significant impact of contaminants on some endpoints of ecosystem functioning than studies with appropriate designs. Synthesis and applications. Up to 70% of studies found negative impacts of contaminants on primary production. Toxic contaminants therefore have the potential to greatly affect the ecosystem services and benefits provided by these systems. Our findings will help managers and policymakers to determine whether contaminants are affecting both biodiversity and ecosystem functioning in a given context, therefore helping to prioritize areas for remediation. There is still, however, much to understand about the relationships between biological diversity and ecosystem functioning. Our understanding of chemical contaminant effects will remain patchy until direct measures of both variables are undertaken within multiple ecosystems. We therefore recommend the adoption of functional endpoints, such as productivity and respiration, in ecological studies, routine toxicological studies and ecological risk assessment.
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Keywords: ecosystem services; functional endpoint; pelagic systems; pollution

Document Type: Research Article

Publication date: February 1, 2015

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