Coastal restoration projects to mitigate environmental impacts have increased global demand for sand resources. Unfortunately, these resources are often extracted from sand/shell banks on the inner continental shelf, resulting in significant alteration or loss of low-relief reefs in coastal oceans. Experimental reefs (oyster shell, limestone rubble, composite) were deployed in the western Gulf of Mexico to assess their potential value as nurseries for newly settled reef fishes. Occurrence, abundance, and species richness of juvenile fishes were significantly higher on all three types of low-relief reefs compared with unconsolidated sediment. Moreover, reefs served as nursery habitat for a range of reef fish taxa (angelfishes, grunts, sea basses, snappers, and triggerfishes). Red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) was the dominant species present on all experimental reefs (100% occurrence), and mean density of this species was markedly higher on each of the three low-relief reefs (>40.0 individuals/reef) relative to comparable areas over unconsolidated sediment (0.2 individuals). Our results suggest creation or restoration of structurally complex habitat on the inner shelf has the potential to markedly increase early life survival and expedite the recovery of exploited reef fish populations, and therefore may represent a critical conservation tool for increasing recruitment and maintaining reef fish diversity.
Dance, Michael A., Jay R. Rooker, Richard J. Kline, Antonietta Quigg, Gregory R. Stunz, R. J. David Wells, Kirsten Lara, Jessica Lee, and Bobbie Suarez. 2021. “Importance of Low-Relief Nursery Habitat for Reef Fishes.” Ecosphere 12 (6): e03542. https://doi.org/10.1002/ecs2.3542.