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Elasmobranch Community Dynamics in Florida’s Southern Indian River Lagoon

Abstract

Many elasmobranch species utilize estuaries as nurseries, parturition areas, and foraging grounds. Florida’s Indian River Lagoon (IRL), an “estuary of national significance,” has experienced many anthropogenic impacts in recent decades, such as habitat degradation and declining water quality, and there is a substantial data gap surrounding the status of elasmobranchs in this system. A fishery-independent survey (longline/gillnet) was implemented to characterize the elasmobranch community and understand distribution patterns and habitat use in the IRL (Sebastian to St. Lucie Inlet). From July 2016 to June 2018, 630 individuals of 16 species were caught and tagged, including two critically endangered smalltooth sawfish Pristis pectinata. Bull sharks Carcharhinus leucas and Atlantic stingrays Hypanus sabinus were the two most common species collected (47% of the total catch), and size differences by region were observed. The longline catch exhibited a significant difference in species composition among regions while the gillnet catch composition significantly varied among seasons. Although dependent on survey gear type, there was evidence of combinations of abiotic parameters (e.g., depth, salinity, water clarity, distance to a freshwater source, distance to an inlet) driving elasmobranch species composition. Bull sharks and Atlantic stingrays dominated areas with frequently low salinities while more diverse assemblages of species were apparent towards inlet passes. This study provides the first in-depth analysis of the elasmobranch community in the IRL and develops capacity to understand how these species may respond to further environmental changes in this highly impacted estuary.

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Acknowledgments

The authors would like to thank the two anonymous reviewers for their constructive comments that helped improve this manuscript. The authors would like to acknowledge the Harbor Branch Oceanographic Institute Foundation (HBOIF) Save Our Seas Specialty License Plate Program, the HBOIF Indian River Lagoon Graduate Research Fellowship, SeaWorld Bush Gardens Conservation Fund, Disney Conservation Fund, and the Sunrise Rotary Vero Beach Foundation for funding this research. The authors would also like to thank the HBOI Fisheries Ecology and Conservation Lab (B. DeGroot, S. Lombardo, C. Luck, R. Shaw) for their integral help in conducting the survey as well as all of the volunteers, interns, and colleagues that assisted with field work. The authors would also like to thank G. Poulakis for input that greatly improved the manuscript. This research was conducted under protocols approved by the Florida Atlantic University Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (Animal Use Protocol #A16-16) and in accordance with federal and Florida state laws and regulations under the following permits: FWC Special Activity Licenses SAL-16-1785-SRP, SAL-17-1785-SRP, SAL-18-1785A-SRP, National Marine Fisheries Service ESA Permit 15802-1, Florida Department of Environmental Protection Florida Park Service Scientific Research Permits 07261610 and 07241710A, and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Special Use Permits 41572-2016-04 and 41572-2017-07. Additional support was provided by the USFWS Refuge System-Pelican Island National Wildlife Refuge and Florida State Parks system. Tags and tagging equipment were provided by C. McCandless and the NMFS Highly Migratory Species Office’s Apex Predators Program.

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Roskar, G., McCallister, M.P., Schaefer, A.M. et al. Elasmobranch Community Dynamics in Florida’s Southern Indian River Lagoon. Estuaries and Coasts 44, 801–817 (2021). https://doi.org/10.1007/s12237-020-00804-2

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Keywords

  • Fishery-independent
  • Shark
  • Ray
  • Distribution
  • Estuary