Positive feedbacks in seagrass ecosystems: Implications for success in conservation and restoration

Tjisse Van Der Heide*, Egbert H. Van Nes, Gertjan W. Geerling, Alfons J.P. Smolders, Tjeerd J. Bouma, Marieke M. Van Katwijk

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Seagrasses are threatened by human activity in many locations around the world. Their decline is often characterized by sudden ecosystem collapse from a vegetated to a bare state. In the 1930s, such a dramatic event happened in the Dutch Wadden Sea. Before the shift, large seagrass beds (Zostera marina) were present in this area. After the construction of a large dam and an incidence of the "wasting disease" in the early 1930s, these meadows became virtually extinct and never recovered despite restoration attempts. We investigated whether this shift could be explained as a critical transition between alternative stable states, and whether the lack of recovery could be due to the high resilience of the new turbid state. We analyzed the depth distribution of the historical meadows, a long-term dataset of key factors determining turbidity and a minimal model based on these data. Results demonstrate that recovery was impossible because turbidity related to suspended sediment was too high, probably because turbidity was no longer reduced by seagrass itself. Model simulations on the positive feedback suggest indeed the robust occurrence of alternative stable states and a high resilience of the current turbid state. As positive feedbacks are common in seagrasses, our findings may explain both the worldwide observed collapses and the low success rate of restoration attempts of seagrass habitats. Therefore, appreciation of ecosystem resilience may be crucial in seagrass ecosystem management.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1311-1322
Number of pages12
Issue number8
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2007
Externally publishedYes


  • Alternative stable states
  • Ecosystem engineer
  • Positive feedback
  • Restoration
  • Seagrass ecosystem
  • Turbidity
  • Wadden Sea
  • Wasting disease
  • Zostera marina


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