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An extreme climate event and extensive habitat alterations cause a non-linear and persistent decline to a well-managed estuarine fishery

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Abstract

Theoretical, field-based, and experimental research all suggest that animal populations remain relatively stable under increasing habitat alteration until a critical threshold is reached, after which small changes to habitats result in large negative responses. However, there are few empirical examples demonstrating this in marine fishes, making identification of such thresholds difficult. Here, we synthesized long-term (25 + year) fisheries and habitat datasets across four estuaries in Florida (USA) to examine the combined effects of a once in ninety-year cold spell and habitat alterations on populations of an estuarine dependent fish, common snook (Centropomus undecimalis). In Florida, common snook support an important recreational fishery where harvest is well-managed. Common snook populations in three estuaries with less severe habitat alterations recovered to pre-disturbance levels within 4 years of the cold spell. However, in the estuary with the most extensive habitat alteration—including 34% loss of mangrove habitats, near complete loss or fragmentation of saltmarsh habitats, a 65,000 acre seagrass die-off, and eutrophication—the common snook population had yet to recover 8 years after the cold spell. Using a life-stage explicit approach, habitat alterations affecting early life history processes (i.e., juvenile survival and larval settlement) may be responsible for decreased resilience. This study highlights the need for fisheries management to consider habitat loss and disturbance, along with harvest in stock assessment and management processes. Adopting policies to protect and restore habitats will improve fish population resiliency to disturbance, thereby mitigating non-linear and costly declines to fisheries.

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Data availability

The datasets generated during and/or analyzed during the current study are available from the corresponding author on reasonable request.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the dedicated field staff that assisted with these expansive sampling efforts across the state of Florida. This project was supported with funds collected from Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, the State of Florida Saltwater Fishing License sales, Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Federal Aid for Sport Fish Restoration Grant Number F-43 to the Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission. Florida Fish and Wildlife Commission does not require IACUC protocols for government funded state research. As such, no formal protocol was used.

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A.J.A. conceived the idea; R.E.B carried out the analyses and led the writing of the manuscript. All authors contributed to writing, and conceptual development.

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Correspondence to R. E. Boucek.

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No approval of research ethics committees was required to accomplish the goals of this study. Aaron Adams is a Guest Editor of this special issue, but he had no involvement in the peer review of this article and had no access to information regarding its peer review. Data collection, ethical treatment of animal subjects and quality control checks were done through standards established by Florida Fish and Wildlife Research Institute, who were responsible for all data collection used in this study.

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Boucek, R.E., Allen, M.S., Ellis, R.D. et al. An extreme climate event and extensive habitat alterations cause a non-linear and persistent decline to a well-managed estuarine fishery. Environ Biol Fish 106, 193–207 (2023). https://doi.org/10.1007/s10641-022-01309-6

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