Intensive exploitation of the marine environment by mankind can alter the natural habitat of marine organisms drastically. The addition of artificial hard substrates (e.g. shipwrecks and wind turbine foundations) to soft-sediment sandy bottoms is a pervasive example of an anthropogenic habitat change. To investigate the importance of hard substrate habitats for demersal fish species, we studied the spatio-temporal variability for two commercially important species, Atlantic cod (Gadus morhua) and pouting (Trisopterus luscus), from 2009 to 2011 at three different habitats in the Belgian part of the North Sea (BPNS), i.e. windmill artificial reefs (WARs), shipwrecks and sandy bottoms. Our results showed that population densities of both species were highly enhanced at the hard substrate habitats in comparison to the sandy sediments. The highest catch-per-unit effort values for both species were recorded around the WARs, which indicated distinct aggregation around the wind turbine foundations. In addition, the observed aggregation at the hard substrates differed between seasons. Highest population densities were observed in summer and autumn, i.e. the most intensive feeding period for both fishes.
We conclude that the distribution and behaviour of Atlantic cod and pouting is affected by the presence and complexity of artificial hard substrates on the seabed.