Larval ecology of the great barracuda, Sphyraena barracuda, and other sphyraenids in the Straits of Florida
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The great barracuda (Sphyraena barracuda) is a widespread, ecologically and socioeconomically important coastal fish, yet very little is known about its larvae. We examined spawning and larval ecology of Western Atlantic sphyraenids using monthly ichthyoplankton samples collected over 2 years along a transect spanning the east–west axis of the Straits of Florida (SOF). Samples were dominated by the great barracuda (92.8%) and sennets (Sphyraena borealis and Sphyraena picudilla; 6.6%). While larval sennets and S. barracuda displayed similar vertical distributions (majority in upper 25 m), horizontal and temporal patterns of abundance suggested a spatial and temporal species replacement between larval S. barracuda and sennets that tracks adult ecology. The diet of both taxa consisted largely of copepods, with inclusion of fish larvae at 8 mm SL, and in S. barracuda alone, a switch in the wet season to exclusive piscivory by 12 mm SL (18 days post-hatch). A lack of piscivory in S. barracuda larvae captured in the dry season corresponded to slower larval growth than in the wet season. Larval growth was also related to size-at-hatch and larval age such that larvae that were larger at hatch or larger (older) at capture grew faster at earlier ages, suggesting faster larval growth, and indirectly larger hatch size, conveys a survival advantage. Unlike larval growth, instantaneous mortality rate did not differ with season, and no lunar cyclic patterns in spawning output were identified. Our results provide insight into the pelagic phase of sphyraenids and highlight the importance of both diet and hatch size to the growth and survival of fish larvae in low latitude oceanic environments.