Top-down restoration: a food web perspective on enhancing recovery of over-fished species and reducing the social costs of marine conservation

Award Period
Award Amount
Agency Name
Society for Conservation Biology
Award Number
PI First Name
PI Last Name
Adrian Stier
MSI People
Area/s of Research
Marine Conservation, Policy and Education

Conservation “wins” can sometimes create new tradeoffs and threaten broader conservation goals. For example, predator protection has produced some notable successes, yet growing predator populations can suppress and delay the recovery of prey that are themselves conservation priorities. These stalled prey recoveries can have dramatic social, economic, and ecological consequences; therefore, integrating predator-prey interactions into conservation plans to facilitate rapid and direct, whole ecosystem recoveries represents a vital conservation challenge. Coordinated, multispecies management may improve conservation outcomes and increase economic opportunities by employing adaptive predator harvest (culling) to accelerate simultaneous recovery of predators and prey. Yet, not all predator removals are effective and even when predator populations are reduced, they do not always produce the desired outcome. As such, the contexts in which predator removal will enhance recovery outcomes and the optimal application of predator control remain poorly understood. I propose to address this critical knowledge gap and advance ecosystem-based management for restoration of marine food webs by: 1) determining the empirical generality of top-down regulation of marine recoveries, 2) identifying contexts where predator harvest is predicted to enhance multispecies recovery, and 3) evaluating the utility of predator harvest within a high-profile case study of delayed species recovery. Working in collaboration with NOAA, I will first synthesize predator-prey time series of recoveries at multiple spatial scales from NE Pacific to identify the signature of top-down regulation in a marine ecosystem. Building on the results of this synthesis, I will construct a strategic model generalizing the effects of species traits, ecological context, and management decisions on the utility of predator removal for accelerating mutual recovery. In collaboration with NOAA and TNC, I will then apply this model to spatially-explicit data on the interaction between lingcod (Ophiodon elongatus) and recovering rockfish species (Sebastes spp.) to evaluate the proposed selective lingcod harvest across large-scale environmental and ecological gradients, thereby building coalitions among organizations to support conservation science. My proposed research will simultaneously answer basic questions about the processes that drive variation in species recoveries and produce specific guidance for accelerating recoveries in a marine ecosystem, which I will integrate into existing and future management plans for conservation targets. This research will advance the leading edge of conservation science by integrating ecosystem-based principles into species recovery strategies. By applying community ecology theory to marine resource management, this research will allow practitioners to successfully manage the conservation tradeoffs inherent in restoring degraded marine food webs and will identify potential socio-ecological “win-win” scenarios.