I am a coastal community ecologist that work in the interphase between land and sea, and currently I focus on putting marine fish ecology on the scientific agenda in the Netherlands. Coastal fish has always been an integrated part of coastal and riverine economies, but the ecological knowledge of coastal fish in the Netherlands is seriously neglected. At the same time, coastal fish are experiencing increased threats by a strong emerging necessity to adapt and transform our coastlines and rivers, in response to global climate change. These are likely to compound the current already high pressures on coastal fish populations by creating even more impermeable barriers. This calls for urgent action and attention to how coastal fish are managed and affected by climate change and resulting infrastructure developments. The past years we have started to map fish distributions and describe their web of interactions along the Dutch coast. The coming years mechanistic experiments will reveal the function of fish communities for the Dutch coastline. Looking five-ten years forward, I aim to provide advice on how we can manage a coastline that is resilient both for humans and coastal biodiversity.
Understanding consequences of the global erosion of species for the integrity of the biosphere is one of the grand challenges for biological sciences in the 21st century. Biodiversity determines the function of ecological communities, including how they respond to major threats to human welfare such as climate change and nutrient loading. For more than two decades, the overall aim of my research has therefore been to understand how biodiversity loss (in the broad sense) affects the function and resilience of natural communities.
The destruction of coastal fish communities through modification of our coastlines is one of the largest ecological catastrophes in northern Europe. Fish in the Wadden Sea is in dramatic decline. Especially threatened are those fish that migrate and use the Dutch coasts for part of their life-cycle and that are constrained by barriers such as seawalls and dams. My prioritized research goals are currently therefore to understand the importance of coastal habitats for fish, why coastal fish is in decline, and how fish in turn shape their own habitat and its wider ecosystem.
The swimway of fish
In a five year project on fish we explore how fish use the Wadden Sea during different parts of their life-cycle. We have two main targets: 1) to document the function of foreshore salt-marshes for fish; and 2) to experimentally test the function of small-scale reef structures for fish.
Salt-marshes: The Netherlands have battled the sea for centuries and provide a template for the engineering solution to safe-guard highly populated coastal areas from rising sea levels. The Dutch solution is tempting because it provide instant safety by constructing a hard land-sea border that protects us from marine intrusion. At the same time it is an ecological catastrophe, transforming multi-functional wetlands that provide a portal between fresh and salt, into an impermeable barrier of land. Here we explore the function of the leftover salt-marches for fish. These man-made marshes outside the sea-wall are mainly managed for grazing livestock and birds, and are traditionally not acknowledged as valuable for marine organisms. We show that these foreshore marshes lack important aspects of habitat variability that occur in natural marshes, but that they still are valuable for fish and need to be accounted for when designing management plans for the failing coastal fish ecosystem in the Netherlands.