Biology Faculty Articles


Fish assemblages on sunken-vessels and natural reefs in southeast Florida, USA

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Artificial reef, Vessel, Coral reef, Habitat







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Derelict ships are commonly deployed as artificial reefs in the United States, mainly for recreational fishers and divers. Despite their popularity, few studies have rigorously examined fish assemblages on these structures and compared them to natural reefs. Six vessel-reefs off the coast of southeast Florida were censused quarterly (two ships per month) to characterize their associated fish assemblages. SCUBA divers used a non-destructive point-count method to visually assess the fish assemblages over 13- and 12-month intervals (March 2000 to March 2001 and March 2002 to February 2003). During the same intervals, fish assemblages at neighboring natural reefs were also censused. A total of 114,252 fishes of 177 species was counted on natural and vessel-reefs combined. Mean fish abundance and biomass were significantly greater on vessel-reefs in comparison to surrounding natural reef areas. Haemulidae was the most abundant family on vessel-reefs, where it represented 46% of total fish abundance. The most abundant family on natural reefs was Labridae, where it accounted for 24% of total fish abundance. Mean species richness was significantly greater on vessel-reefs than neighboring natural reefs and also differed among vessel-reefs. Both mean fish abundance and mean species richness were not significantly different between natural reefs neighboring vessel-reefs and natural reefs with no artificial structures nearby. This suggests the vessel-reefs are not, in general, attracting fish away from neighboring natural reefs in our area. Additionally, economically important fish species seem to prefer vessel-reefs, as there was a greater abundance of these species on vessel-reefs than surrounding natural reef areas. Fish assemblage structure on natural versus artificial reefs exhibited a low similarity (25.8%). Although no one species was responsible for more than 6% of the total dissimilarity, fish assemblage trophic structure differed strikingly between the two reef types. Planktivores dominated on vessel-reefs, accounting for 54% of the total abundance. Conversely, planktivores only made up 27% of total abundance on natural reefs. The results of this study indicate vessel-reef fish assemblages are unique and that these fishes may be utilizing food resources and habitat characteristics not accessible from or found at natural reefs in our area. Production may also be occurring at vessel-reefs as the attraction of fish species from nearby natural reefs seems to be minimal.

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