The effects of gas extraction under intertidal mudflats on sediment and macrozoobenthic communities.

Published online
21 May 2024
Content type
Journal article
Journal title
Journal of Applied Ecology

Barra, P. de la & Aarts, G. & Bijleveld, A.
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Publication language
Denmark & Nordic Countries


Land subsidence in intertidal environments may change the flooding regime and sediment composition, two drivers of the macrozoobenthic community. In the Dutch Wadden Sea, a UNESCO world heritage site, gas extraction has resulted in an average subsidence of intertidal mudflats of 2 mm year-1. These mudflats support an abundant macrozoobenthic community that offers important resources for birds and fish. The area is managed through the 'hand on the tap' principle, meaning that human activities should be halted if they affect the natural values. To what extent land subsidence affects sediment and macrozoobenthos remains unknown and is increasingly important given sea level rise. Taking advantage of a large-scale monitoring program, we evaluated the effect of anthropogenically caused subsidence on sediment composition and macrozoobenthos. Nearly 4600 points were sampled yearly (2008-2020) across the Dutch Wadden Sea, allowing us to compare sediment composition and macrozoobenthos biomass within and outside the subsidence area while controlling for the main drivers of these variables. We also compared population trends within and outside the subsidence area for 31 species with different habitat use. Mud fraction was 3% higher within the subsided area and median grain size decreased at 1 μm year-1 while remaining constant in other mudflats. This had no effect on the total biomass of macrozoobenthos. Within the subsidence area, however, the biomass of species that use deeper areas increased compared to outside, and the opposite was true for species using shallower habitat. Policy implications: Land subsidence is related to changes in median grain size and macrozoobenthic community composition. However, because thresholds have not been defined, it is not clear if this requires management actions. For a successful implementation of the 'hand on the tap' principle in the Wadden Sea, it is necessary to define beforehand the relevant variables that represent the natural values, implement proper monitoring and define thresholds above which effects are not acceptable. We propose median grain size, mud fraction and macrozoobenthic composition as good measures of the natural values of the Wadden Sea, and the methods used here as a way for identifying anthropogenic effects on them.

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