Nekton use of subtidal oyster shell habitat in a Southeastern U.S. estuary
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Subtidal accumulations of oyster shell have been largely overlooked as essential habitat for estuarine nekton. In southeastern U.S. estuaries, where oyster reef development is mostly confined to the intertidal zone, eastern oyster (Crassostrea virginica) shell covered bottoms are often the only significant source of hard subtidal structure. We characterized and quantified nekton use of submerged shell rubble bottoms, and compared it to use of intertidal reefs and other subtidal bottoms in the North Inlet estuary, South Carolina. Replicate trays (0.8 m2) filled with shell rubble were deployed in shallow salt marsh creeks, and were retrieved after soak times of 1 to 25 days from May 1998 to March 2000. Thirty six species of fishes, representing 21 families, were identified from the 455 tray collections. Water temperature, salinity, soak time and the presence of a shell substrate all affected the catch of fishes in the trays. Catches during the warmer months were two to five times greater than those during the winter. Fishes were present in 98% of the trays with an overall average of 5.7 fish m−2. The assemblage was numerically dominated by small resident species including naked goby (Gobiosoma bose), oyster toadfish (Opsanus tau), and crested blenny (Hypleurochilus geminatus). Transient species accounted for 23% of all individuals and 62% of the total biomass due to the presence of relatively large sheepshead (Archosargus probatocephalus) and black sea bass (Centropristis striata). Both the transient and resident species displayed distinct periods of recruitment and rapid growth from April to October. Lower abundances of juvenile gobies and blennies during 1998 were attributed to long periods of depressed salinity caused by high rainfall associated with El Niño conditions in spring. Crabs and shrimps, which were often more abundant than the fishes, accounted for comparable biomass in the tray collections. In comparisons of subtidal tray and trawl catches, trays yielded 10 to 1,000 fold higher densities of some demersal fish groups. Comparisons of intertidal and subtidal gear catches indicated that many species remain in the subtidal shell bottom at all stages of the tide. This study suggests that subtidal shell bottom may be essential fish habitat for juvenile seabass, groupers, and snappers and that it may be the primary habitat for a diverse assemblage of ecologically important resident fishes and crustaceans. Given the high levels of nekton use and the areal extent of oyster shell bottoms in eastern U.S. and Gulf estuaries, increased attention to protection and restoration of these areas appears justified.
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