Ocean food webs
Forage fish occupy central positions in the ocean food webs. The position that a fish occupies in a food web is called its trophic level (Greek trophe = food). The organisms it eats are at a lower trophic level, and the organisms that eat it are at a higher trophic level. Forage fish occupy middle levels in the food web, serving as a dominant prey to higher level fish, seabirds and mammals. Ecological pyramids are graphical representations, along the lines of the diagram at the right, which show how biomass or productivity changes at each trophic level in a ecosystem. The first or bottom level is occupied by primary producers or autotrophs (Greek autos = self and trophe = food). These are the names given to organisms that do not feed on other organisms, but produce biomass from inorganic compounds, mostly by a process of photosynthesis. In oceans, most primary production is performed by algae. This is a contrast to land, where most primary production is performed by vascular plants. Algae ranges from single floating cells to attached seaweeds, while vascular plants are represented in the ocean by groups such as the seagrasses. Larger producers, such as seagrasses and seaweeds, are mostly confined to the littoral zone and shallow waters, where they attach to the underlying substrate and still be within the photic zone. Most primary production in the ocean is performed by microscopic organisms, the phytoplankton. Thus, in ocean environments, the first bottom trophic level is occupied principally by phytoplankton, microscopic drifting organisms, mostly one-celled algae, that float in the sea. Most phytoplankton are too small to be seen individually with the unaided eye. They can appear as a green discoloration of the water when they are present in high enough numbers. Since they increase their biomass mostly through photosynthesis they live in the sun-lit surface layer (euphotic zone) of the sea. The most important groups of phytoplankton include the diatoms and dinoflagellates. Diatoms are especially important in oceans, where they are estimated to contribute up to 45% of the total ocean's primary production. Diatoms are usually microscopic, alth
ugh some species can reach up to 2 millimetres in length. The second trophic level (primary consumers) is occupied by zooplankton which feed off the phytoplankton. Together with the phytoplankton, they form the base of the food pyramid that supports most of the world's great fishing grounds. Zooplankton are tiny animals found with the phytoplankton in oceanic surface waters, and include tiny crustaceans, and fish larvae and fry (recently-hatched fish). Most zooplankton are filter feeders, and they use appendages to strain the phytoplankton in the water. Some larger zooplankton also feed on smaller zooplankton. Some zooplankton can jump about a bit to avoid predators, but they can't really swim. Like phytoplankton, they float with the currents, tides and winds instead. Zooplanktons can reproduce rapidly, their populations can increase up to thirty percent a day under favourable conditions. Many live short and productive lives and reach maturity quickly. Particularly important groups of zooplankton are the copepods and krill. These are not shown in the images above, but are discussed in more detail later. Copepods are a group of small crustaceans found in ocean and freshwater habitats. They are the biggest source of protein in the sea, and are important prey for forage fish. Krill constitute the next biggest source of protein. Krill are particularly large predator zooplankton which feed on smaller zooplankton. This means they really belong to the third trophic level, secondary consumers, along with the forage fish. Together, phytoplankton and zooplankton make up most of the plankton in the sea. Plankton is the term applied to any small drifting organisms that float in the sea (Greek planktos = wanderer or drifter). By definition, organisms classified as plankton are unable to swim against ocean currents; they cannot resist the ambient current and control their position. In ocean environments, the first two trophic levels are occupied mainly by plankton. Plankton are divided into producers and consumers. The producers are the phytoplankton (Greek phyton = plant) and the consumers, who eat the phytoplankton, are the zooplankton (Greek zoon = animal).