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Rocky intertidal communities: past environmental changes, present status and predictions for the next 25 years

  • R. C. Thompson (a1), T. P. Crowe (a2) and S. J. Hawkins (a3) (a4)


Rocky shores occur at the interface of the land and sea. Typically they are open ecosystems, with steep environmental gradients. Their accessibility to man has rendered them susceptible to a variety of impacts since prehistoric times. Access can be regulated, however, and they are more amenable to management than open ocean habitats. This review uses examples from throughout the world to demonstrate the extent to which rocky shores have been, and are currently, affected by pollution (examples used are endocrine disrupters, oil, eutrophication), over-collection of living resources, introduced alien species, modification of coastal processes (coastal defences, siltation) and global change (climate, sea level). These impacts are put into the context of natural fluctuations in time and variability in space of both the environment and the organisms. The relative magnitudes of some anthropogenic disturbances differ between the industrialized, developed world and the developing world. For example, in developed, industrialized countries pollution based impacts should diminish over the next 25 years due to improved regulation and a reduction in older ‘dirtier’ heavy industry. Conversely, in many developing countries pollution will increase as a consequence of growth in the human population and industrialization. Except for large-scale disasters such as oil spills, pollution tends mainly to influence embayed coastlines. Chronic effects such as eutrophication can have broader-scale impacts over whole coastlines and elevated nutrient levels have also been implicated in a trend of increasing frequency of catastrophic kills due to harmful algal. Direct removal of living resources has had major effects on coastlines at both local and regional scales and is likely to increase over the next 25 years, especially in developing countries where rapidly expanding human populations will put further pressure on resources. Impacts from recreational activities are likely to increase with greater leisure time in wealthier regions of the world, and cheaper travel will spread these impacts to poorer regions. Invasions by alien species have increased in frequency during the last 20 years leading to some dramatic effects on native assemblages. Problems associated with alien species, especially pathogens, will continue to increase over the next few decades. The proportion of the coastline modified by artificial structures (breakwaters, seawalls, groynes) will increase because of coastal development and defences against sea-level rise and the greater frequency of storms. This will increase connectivity between areas of rocky habitat. Siltation will continue to increase due to urbanization of catchments and estuaries, and changes in agricultural practice. This may have considerable impacts at local and regional scales, favouring sediment tolerant organisms such as turf algae and anemones. In the future, greater frequency of environmental extremes is likely, including large-scale events such as the El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO). Global change in temperature, sea-level rise and increases in the frequency of storms will affect rocky shores throughout the world, but this will occur over long time scales; over the next 25 years most of the responses by rocky shore communities will mostly be quite subtle. Thus rocky shores will be subject to increasing degradation over the next 25 years. They are, however, less vulnerable than many other aquatic habitats due to their hard substratum (rock), their relative lack of large biogenic structures and to their generally open nature. They are also remarkably resilient, and recovery can occur rapidly due to recruitment from unaffected areas. Their susceptibility to both terrestrial and marine disturbances does make them more vulnerable than sublittoral and offshore habitats. There are considerable gaps in knowledge, particularly of certain microhabitats such as crevices, boulders, sand-scoured areas and rock pools. These have been much less studied than more accessible assemblages on open, freely draining rock. More research is needed to establish the effects of increasing sediment loads, ultraviolet radiation and introduced species on rocky shore communities. Strategic and applied research programmes should integrate field experiments and carefully selected monitoring programmes to verify management regimes. Hindcasting from the palaeo-record would be valuable, to compare rates of predicted change with periods when change was rapid in the past. This information could, in principle, be used to help conserve rocky shores through networks of marine protected areas and a general reduction of environmental pollution.


Corresponding author

Correspondence: Professor Stephen Hawkins Tel: +44 1752 633100 Fax: +44 1752 633102 e-mail:


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Rocky intertidal communities: past environmental changes, present status and predictions for the next 25 years

  • R. C. Thompson (a1), T. P. Crowe (a2) and S. J. Hawkins (a3) (a4)


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