MEPS 342:227-238 (2007)  -  doi:10.3354/meps342227

Presence of larger flatfish modifies habitat preference by Age-0 northern rock sole Lepidopsetta polyxystra

Clifford H. Ryer1,*, Allan W. Stoner1, Mara L. Spencer1, Alisa A. Abookire2

1Fisheries Behavioral Ecology Program, Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries, Hatfield Marine Science Center, Newport, Oregon 97365, USA
2Alaska Fisheries Science Center, NOAA Fisheries, Kodiak Laboratory, 301 Research Court, Kodiak, Alaska 99615, USA

ABSTRACT: Essential fish habitat (EFH) is poorly defined for the early stages of most commercially important species. Age-0 flatfish making summer use of shallow coastal embayments around Kodiak Alaska distribute themselves according to a variety of bottom features. Both field and laboratory studies indicate that the numerically dominant species, northern rock sole Lepidopsetta polyxystra and Pacific halibut Hippoglossus stenolepis, demonstrate an affinity for seafloor with emergent structure: algae, shell, worm-tubes, etc. We conducted field manipulations, in which bivalve shell was scattered on the seafloor along 100 m transects, with the goal of examining movements of juvenile flatfish in response to these habitat alterations. In the first manipulation, contrary to expectations, Age-0 flatfish emigrated from the shell-enhanced seafloor, producing fish densities that were lower than on adjacent un-enhanced bottom. In comparison, larger flatfish, predominantly Age-1+ rock sole Lepidopsetta spp., increased in abundance on shell-enhanced bottom. Small flatfish may have moved to avoid larger flatfish. The manipulation was repeated at another site with similar physical features, but where large flatfish abundances are generally lower. This time, Age-0 flatfish densities were greater on the shell-enhanced bottom than on adjacent un-enhanced bottom. Again, large flatfish were more abundant on the shell bottom, but they were nearly an order of magnitude less abundant than in the first manipulation. In a subsequent laboratory experiment, Age-1 northern rock sole demonstrated stronger affinity for shell bottom than did Age-0 northern rock sole. In another experiment, Age-0 northern rock sole moved to avoid aggregations of larger conspecifics as well as other species of large flatfish. We conclude that these Age-0 flatfish, predominantly northern rock sole, perceive larger fish as predators and/or competitors, with habitat quality degraded by their presence. These results demonstrate that habitat quality for juvenile fish is influenced by biotic factors as well as by physical characteristics of habitat.

KEY WORDS: Habitat complexity · Habitat quality · Rock sole · Pacific halibut · Predator-prey interactions · Competitive interactions · Essential fish habitat · Indirect predation effects

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