Depth and habitat determine assemblage structure of South Africa’s warm-temperate reef fish
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Depth and habitat are important predictors of fish assemblage structure, yet current no-take marine protected area (MPA) networks are generally limited to providing refuge for fish species that inhabit shallow waters and may exclude deep habitats essential to exploited populations. To ensure MPA efficacy at the design, uptake and management levels, baseline data on fish populations associated with deep nearshore reefs are needed. This study employed baited remote underwater stereo-video systems to investigate fish habitat associations at shallow (11–25 m) and deep (45–75 m) reef sites in the Tsitsikamma National Park MPA, South Africa. The compositions of fish assemblages at shallow and deep reef sites were significantly different. Specifically, rare species, juveniles and low trophic level species dominated the shallow reef, while deep reef assemblages were characterised by large, sexually mature and predatory fish. The body size of abundant species was also correlated with depth, with larger individuals being more abundant on deeper reefs. Habitat types were identified according to a habitat classification system established in a previous study, which resulted in four broad depth separated habitat types (defined by macrobenthos and environmental variables). Canonical analysis of principle coordinates (CAP) indicated that habitat type was a good categorical predictor of the observed fish assemblages. The CAP analysis determined that 86 % of the samples were correctly assigned to the habitat type from which they were collected, indicating that specific fish assemblages were associated with distinct habitat types. This study highlights the importance of protecting both shallow and deep reefs, not only to ensure the conservation of particular fish assemblages, but also to provide protection for all stages of the life cycle of fish species.
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