Big fish in shallow water; use of an intertidal surf-zone habitat by large-bodied teleosts and elasmobranchs in tropical northern Australia

Abstract

Shallow intertidal habitats are recognised as critical for larval and juvenile fish, and are often assumed to function as refuge areas where predation risk is reduced. Yet there is growing evidence that suggest these areas may also be regularly inhabited by large bodied fish and be the site of high levels of juvenile fish predation. In the present study we examined the use of an intermittently available surf zone habitat in tropical northern Australia by a diverse community of large-bodied teleosts (mean total length 444 mm), sharks (mean total stretched length 658 mm) and rays (mean total stretched length 1,108 mm). Drawing on the methods and ecological knowledge of a local commercial fishery, gillnets were used to capture fish as they entered the surf zone on the flooding tide. Monthly surveys over a one-year period revealed a dynamic assemblage consisting of 30 species of teleosts (mostly caught as adults) and 14 species of sharks and rays (mostly caught as juveniles or young of the year). Although it is unclear why these fish use this habitat, we conclude that it may support a broad range of biological benefits including spawning for teleosts, parturition for elasmobranchs, as well as foraging and refuge. The unique findings of this study highlight existing knowledge gaps and the need to better understand what fish use the intertidal zone and why. This should be a high priority given the increasing anthropogenic pressures on coastal margins.

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Acknowledgments

This study was funded by the Australian Commonwealth Government Marine and Tropical Scientific Research Facility (MTSRF), Project 4.8.4 and carried out under James Cook University Ethics Approval A1566. The authors thank the many volunteers that assisted with the field work as well as two anonymous reviewers whose comments helped improve this manuscript.

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Correspondence to Andrew J. Tobin.

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Tobin, A.J., Mapleston, A., Harry, A.V. et al. Big fish in shallow water; use of an intertidal surf-zone habitat by large-bodied teleosts and elasmobranchs in tropical northern Australia. Environ Biol Fish 97, 821–838 (2014). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10641-013-0182-y

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Keywords

  • Shallow water
  • Intertidal
  • Surf zone
  • Spawning
  • Refuge