HCNSO Student Theses and Dissertations

Defense Date


Document Type


Degree Name

M.S. Marine Biology

First Advisor

Tracey Sutton

Second Advisor

David Kerstetter

Third Advisor

Jay Rooker


Fishes within the family Scombridae (i.e. tunas, mackerels and bonitos) are of high ecological and economic value, as they are heavily targeted by commercial and recreational fisheries. In coastal and open-ocean environments, adults are high-level predators, while larvae and juveniles serve as prey for numerous species. Much is known about the distribution and abundance of adult tunas, but high taxonomic uncertainty and limited knowledge regarding the distributional patterns of larval and juvenile tunas have led to an “operational taxonomic unit” gap in our understanding of tuna ecology. Scombrids were collected across the Gulf of Mexico (GoM, hereafter) during seven research cruises from 2010-2011, as part of the NOAA-supported Offshore Nekton Sampling and Analysis Program, and during five research cruises from 2015-2017, as a part of the GOMRI-supported Deep Pelagic Nekton Dynamics of the Gulf of Mexico Consortium. In this thesis, species composition, distribution, and abundance of tunas collected from the surface to 1500 m depth are characterized in relation to depth, time of year, and physical oceanographic features. A synthesis of the morphological characteristics used to identify the taxonomically challenging larval and juvenile stages of tunas is presented, along with length-weight regressions to fill the data gap on the growth patterns of these early life stages. A total of 945 scombrid specimens were collected, representing 11 of the 16 species that occur in the GoM. The dominant species included: Euthynnus alletteratus (Little Tunny), Thunnus atlanticus (Blackfin Tuna), Auxis thazard (Frigate Mackerel), and Katsuwonus pelamis (Skipjack Tuna). Evidence of sampling gear selectivity was observed, with a MOCNESS (rectangular, research-sized trawl) collecting larvae predominantly, and a large, high-speed rope trawl catching only juveniles. Scombrids were collected primarily in the upper 200 m of the water column. Species-specific environmental preferences and seasonality were identified as the main drivers of tuna spatial distributions across the epipelagic GoM. Integrating aspects of scombrid ecology in neritic and oceanic environments improves management and conservation efforts for this highly important taxon.