Habitat specialization in tropical continental shelf demersal fish assemblages
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The implications of shallow water impacts such as fishing and climate change on fish assemblages are generally considered in isolation from the distribution and abundance of these fish assemblages in adjacent deeper waters. We investigate the abundance and length of demersal fish assemblages across a section of tropical continental shelf at Ningaloo Reef, Western Australia, to identify fish and fish habitat relationships across steep gradients in depth and in different benthic habitat types. The assemblage composition of demersal fish were assessed from baited remote underwater stereo-video samples (n = 304) collected from 16 depth and habitat combinations. Samples were collected across a depth range poorly represented in the literature from the fringing reef lagoon (1–10 m depth), down the fore reef slope to the reef base (10–30 m depth) then across the adjacent continental shelf (30–110 m depth). Multivariate analyses showed that there were distinctive fish assemblages and different sized fish were associated with each habitat/depth category. Species richness, MaxN and diversity declined with depth, while average length and trophic level increased.The assemblage structure, diversity, size and trophic structure of demersal fishes changes from shallow inshore habitats to deeper water habitats. More habitat specialists (unique species per habitat/depth category) were associated with the reef slope and reef base than other habitats, but offshore sponge-dominated habitats and inshore coral-dominated reef also supported unique species. This suggests that marine protected areas in shallow coral-dominated reef habitats may not adequately protect those species whose depth distribution extends beyond shallow habitats, or other significant elements of demersal fish biodiversity. The ontogenetic habitat partitioning which is characteristic of many species, suggests that to maintain entire species life histories it is necessary to protect corridors of connected habitats through which fish can migrate.
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