HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

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Defense Date


Document Type

Thesis - NSU Access Only

Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

Second Degree Name

M.S. Coastal Zone Management


Oceanographic Center

First Advisor

Samuel J. Purkis

Second Advisor

Eric Hochberg

Third Advisor

Diego Lirman


The role of mangroves as essential fish habitat has been a focus of extensive research. However, recent evidence has shown that this role should not be evaluated in isolation from surrounding habitats such as seagrass beds and hard-bottom communities. For example, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV) communities provide potential sources of food and shelter for fish species that may reside in the mangroves, but may also undergo ontogenetic migrations and daily home-range movements into neighboring habitats. The connectivity between the mangrove fish community and the surrounding seascape may be influenced by the level of patchiness, fragmentation, and spatial heterogeneity of adjacent SAV habitats (i.e., SAV seascape structure). The spatial patterns and heterogeneity of SAV seascape structures are driven by internal and external regulatory mechanisms operating at different spatial and temporal scales. In addition, it is likely that many fish species inhabiting the mangrove zones have different home ranges, and foraging and migratory patterns; therefore, different mangrove fish species may respond to seascape heterogeneity at different scales. There are few studies that have assessed the influence and connectivity of benthic habitats adjacent to mangroves for estuarine fish populations at multiple scales. The present research used an exploratory seascape approach in Biscayne Bay (Florida, USA) to evaluate patterns in the patch composition and configuration of SAV communities, and to examine relationships between seascape structural metrics and the abundance, diversity, and distribution of fishes that utilize the adjacent mangrove shoreline as nursery and/or adult habitat. This seascape approach consisted of: a) the multi-scale characterization of the SAV distribution across the seascape with metrics developed in Landscape Ecology, Geographic Information Systems and Remote Sensing; b) multivariate analyses to identify groups with significantly distinct SAV seascape structures within the most heterogeneous scale, and identify possible mechanisms driving the observed SAV seascape structures; and c) an assessment of the mangrove fish community responses to SAV seascape structures.

By applying a set of multivariate analyses (e.g., ANOSIM, MDS plots, hierarchical clustering), the buffer within 200 m from shore was identified as the scale with the highest structural heterogeneity. At this scale, two major SAV seascape structures (i.e., areas with similar SAV spatial arrangement and composition) were identified: a fragmented SAV seascape (FSS) structure and a continuous SAV seascape (CSS) structure. Areas with CSS were characterized by large, uniform SAV patches. In contrast, areas with FSS were characterized by a higher density of smaller, more complex SAV patches. Furthermore, the areas with CSS and FSS structures clustered in zones of the bay with distinct salinity properties. The areas with CSS structures were mostly located in zones characterized by high and stable salinity. However, the areas with FSS concentrated in zones that are influenced by freshwater discharges from canals and with low and variable salinity.

The responses of fish diversity metrics were not constrained to the scale at which the greatest spatial heterogeneity of SAV seascape structures was observed (i.e., the seascape composition and configuration within 200 m from shore), but was related to SAV seascape characteristics across different scales. The majority of the variability of the fish diversity metrics in the mangrove shoreline was explained by SAV seascape structures within the smaller scales (i.e., 100-400 m from shore), and SAV seascape structures that represented the level of fragmentation and/or the percent of suitable habitat. Different conceptual models were proposed to illustrate and understand the ecological dynamics behind the relationship between the diversity of the mangrove fish community and the structure of the adjacent SAV seascape. In general, the diversity and abundance of fishes is influenced by the type and level of fragmentation of the SAV seascape, which, in turn, influence the proportion of the seascape used for foraging and refuge by fish.

In conclusion, this research quantified how the release of large pulses of freshwater into near-shore habitats of coastal lagoons can influence the seascape structure of SAV communities. Namely, freshwater inputs produce fragmentation in otherwise fairly homogeneous SAV meadows. The outcome of this research highlights the importance of seascape characteristics as indicators of ecosystem-level modifications and alterations affecting the spatial distribution, assemblage, and diversity of marine nearshore habitats in coastal regions heavily influenced by human activities. In addition, the results illustrated the cascading effects and synergistic influences of near-shore habitat spatial assemblages on the composition and diversity of estuarine fish communities. Lastly, and very importantly, the relationships established in this project provide quantitative and qualitative information on patterns of species-habitat associations needed for the improved synergistic management and protection of coastal habitats and fisheries resources.

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