Insights on integrating habitat preferences in process-oriented ecological models - a case study of the southern North Sea
One of the most applied tools to create ecosystem models to support management decisions in the light of ecosystem-based fisheries management is Ecopath with Ecosim (EwE). Recently, its spatial routine Ecospace has evolved due to the addition of the Habitat Foraging Capacity Model (HFCM), a spatial-temporal dynamic niche model to drive the foraging capacity to distribute biomass over model grid cells. The HFCM allows for continuous implementation of externally derived habitat preference maps based on single species distribution models. So far, guidelines are lacking on how to best define habitat preferences for inclusion in process-oriented trophic modeling studies. As one of the first studies, we applied the newest Ecospace development to an existing EwE model of the southern North Sea with the aim to identify which definition of habitat preference leads to the best model fit. Another key aim of our study was to test for the sensitivity of implementing externally derived habitat preference maps within Ecospace to different time-scales (seasonal, yearly, multi-year, and static). For this purpose, generalized additive models (GAM) were fit to scientific survey data using either presence/absence or abundance as differing criteria of habitat preference. Our results show that Ecospace runs using habitat preference maps based on presence/absence data compared best to empirical data. The optimal time-scale for habitat updating differed for biomass and catch, but implementing variable habitats was generally superior to a static habitat representation. Our study hence highlights the importance of a sigmoidal representation of habitat (e.g. presence/absence) and variable habitat preferences (e.g. multi-year) when combining species distribution models with an ecosystem model. It demonstrates that the interpretation of habitat preference can have a major influence on the model fit and outcome.