CIE Spotlight: Modelling food-web mediated effects of hydrological variability and environmental flows

Authors: Barbara J. Robson, Rebecca E. Lester, Darren S. Baldwin, Nicholas R. Bond, Romain Drouart, Robert J. Rolls, Darren S. Ryder, Ross M. Thompson

Source: Water Research

Brief summary of the paper: Environmental flows are designed to enhance aquatic ecosystems through a variety of mechanisms; however, to date most attention has been paid to the effects on habitat quality and life-history triggers, especially for fish and vegetation. The effects of environmental flows on food webs have so far received little attention, despite food-web thinking being fundamental to understanding of river ecosystems. Understanding environmental flows in a food-web context can help scientists and policy-makers better understand and manage outcomes of flow alteration and restoration.

In this paper, we consider mechanisms by which flow variability can influence and alter food webs, and place these within a conceptual and numerical modelling framework. We also review the strengths and weaknesses of various approaches to modelling the effects of hydrological management on food webs. Although classic bioenergetic models such as Ecopath with Ecosim capture many of the key features required, other approaches, such as biogeochemical ecosystem modelling, end-to-end modelling, population dynamic models, individual-based models, graph theory models, and stock assessment models are also relevant. In many cases, a combination of approaches will be useful. We identify current challenges and new directions in modelling food-web responses to hydrological variability and environmental flow management. These include better integration of food-web and hydraulic models, taking physiologically-based approaches to food quality effects, and better representation of variations in space and time that may create ecosystem control points.