, Volume 26, Issue 1, pp 201-216

Reef fish and habitat relationships in a Caribbean seascape: the importance of reef context

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Marine protected area (MPA) effectiveness is contingent on understanding key ecological patterns and processes at appropriate spatial scales and may depend upon maintaining critical linkages among essential habitat patches to conserve reef-fish communities. Hypotheses were tested to investigate the importance of habitat linkages in the US Virgin Islands. As expected, reef context (the spatial pattern of surrounding habitat patches) was a strong predictor of reef fish assemblage structure. Specific relationships were functionally consistent with the ecology of the fishes of interest. For example, reefs with large amounts of seagrass nearby harbored the greatest numerical abundance of fishes, particularly mobile invertebrate feeders and the exploited fish families of Haemulidae (grunts) and Lutjanidae (snappers). Species richness for the entire fish community and within these fish groups was also strongly associated with reef context. Furthermore, reef fish mobility influenced how fishes related to reef context. Fish-habitat relationships were detected as far as 1 km from study reefs, suggesting that fish movements result in habitat encounter rates that may influence their patterns of distribution. Consequently, functional habitat connectivity of habitat patches appears important in structuring reef-fish assemblages, and suggests that landscape-scale metrics may provide insights useful to managers in the design of MPAs.

Communicated by Ecology Editor P.J. Mumby.