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Scale-dependant control of motile epifaunal community structure along a coral reef fishing gradient

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Nicholas Dulvy, Rebecca Mitchell, Dr Christopher Sweeting, Professor Nick Polunin


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Large-scale fishing is mostly conducted using towed gears that reduce the biomass and diversity of benthic invertebrates. However, it is impossible to differentiate between the physical disturbance effect of towed gears from the effect of fish predator removal upon benthic invertebrate communities. Here we explore the impact of fish removal alone on the community structure of small motile coral reef invertebrates (epifauna) along a subsistence fishing intensity gradient in the Lau group, Fiji. We deployed settlement plates at three areas in each of six fishing grounds and examined the density and class richness of the motile epifaunal communities and the associated algal communities in relation to the structure of fish and benthic communities. Motile epifaunal density was unrelated to fishing intensity. However, at smaller inter-area scale (0.5 - 10 km) motile epifaunal density was negatively related to plate algal biomass, whereas at the larger inter-fishing-ground scale (4-180 km) motile epifaunal density was positively related to the rugosity (substrate complexity) of the surrounding benthos. The class richness and diversity (Margalef's d) of motile epifaunal communities were negatively related to fishing intensity, but unrelated to grazing intensity, rugosity or algal biomass at either scale. Benthic community structure varied significantly with fishing intensity; hard-coral cover was lower and turf-algal cover was higher at high fishing pressure. The variation in benthic community structure was associated with variation in fish community structure, which in turn varied with fishing intensity. Motile epifaunal community structure upon plates was linked to the structure of the surrounding benthic community, but was not directly linked to the plate algal community. We suggest the decline in richness of the motile epifauna community along the fishing gradient is attributable to either to exploiter-mediated coexistence or the reduction in 'habitat quality' of the surrounding benthos. At the large spatial scale substrate complexity is the key determinant of motile epifaunal density, suggesting predation by fishes plays an important structuring role at this scale. Assuming that rugosity is inversely related to predation risk then this study represents the first evidence for spatial-dependence on the top-down (predation) vs. bottom-up (algal biomass) control of community structure. We argue fisheries exploitation, in the absence of a physical disturbance can negatively influence motile epifaunal community structure at large spatial scales. © 2002 Elsevier Science B.V. All rights reserved.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Dulvy NK, Mitchell RE, Watson D, Sweeting CJ, Polunin NVC

Publication type: Article

Publication status: Published

Journal: Journal of Experimental Marine Biology and Ecology

Year: 2002

Volume: 278

Issue: 1

Pages: 1-29

ISSN (print): 0022-0981

ISSN (electronic):

Publisher: Elsevier BV


DOI: 10.1016/S0022-0981(02)00327-1


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