Insights into the ecology of the Black Sea through the qualitative loop analysis of the community structure.
Overfishing, excess nutrient load, and invasion of Mnemiopsis leidyi acted on the Black Sea from 1960s to 1990s. Under the effect of these drivers, the ecosystem underwent several transformations that culminated in the shift from a planktonic food chain to a network with most of the energy diverted to jellyfish. The interplay between multiple stressors and the intricate web of trophic interactions make it difficult to understand which causative mechanisms linked the sources of change to the observed variations. To study such interplay, we focused on the structure of the trophic interactions and applied loop analysis to qualitatively predict the response of variables to stressors. Significant variations in biomass trends were identified with statistical analysis and considered as benchmark to validate loop analysis predictions. The results of the comparisons were used to select the most influential trophic interactions that explain the changes observed between 1960 and 1990. The models were applied to test (1) the importance of various environmental drivers and (2) the mechanisms that produced the observed changes. The results suggested that the changes observed before M. leidyi invasion were strongly influenced by the excess nutrient addition, an outcome that challenges the relevance of the trophic cascade as described in literature. The concurrent effect of overfishing, climate, and nutrient enrichment likely triggered the outburst of M. leidyi in the late 1980s. Our work shows the potential of loop analysis to grasp the causal relationships between the drivers, the structure of the interactions, and the responses of the variables.