Shallow soft-sediment systems are mostly dominated by species that, by strongly affecting sediment dynamics, modify their local environment. Such ecosystem engineering species can have either sediment-stabilizing or sediment-destabilizing effects on tidal flats. They interplay with abiotic forcing conditions (wind, tide, nutrient inputs) in driving the community structure and generating spatial heterogeneity, determining the composition of different communities of associated species, and thereby affecting the channelling of energy through different compartments in the food web. This suggests that, depending on local species composition, tidal flats may have conspicuously different geomorphology and biological functions under similar external conditions. Here we use a historical reconstruction of benthic production in the Wadden Sea to construct a framework for the relationships between human impacts, ecosystem engineering and sediment dynamics. We propose that increased sediment disturbances by human exploitation interfere with biological controls of sediment dynamics, and thereby have shifted the dominant compartments of both primary and secondary production in the Wadden Sea, transforming the intertidal from an internally regulated and spatially heterogeneous, to an externally regulated and spatially homogenous system. This framework contributes to the general understanding of the interaction between biological and environmental control of ecosystem functioning, and suggests a general framework for predicting effects of human impacts on soft-bottom ecosystems.