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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13273

Testing assumptions about sex change and spatial management in a protogynous grouper, Gag, Mycteroperca microlepis

Susan Lowerre-Barbieri*, Hayden Menendez, Joel Bickford, Theodore S. Switzer, Luiz Barbieri, Christopher Koenig

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Gag grouper are protogynous hermaphrodites, for which the assumption of female driven reproductive potential may be inaccurate. In protogynous species, male abundance, fertilization success and stock productivity are affected by where and when sex change occurs and how fishing pressure affects male recruitment and survivorship. In this study, we integrate large spatial-scale data with high resolution data from a three-year study sampling Gag at deep-water sites with varying spatial management (a marine protected area (MPA), a seasonally closed area and an open area). Gag exhibited complex spatial ecology, females formed pre-spawning aggregations before migrating to deep-water spawning sites, which overlapped with locations males were sampled year-round. The observed male sex ratio in the MPA was 5% compared to the expected 15%. It was 0% in less protected areas. Sex change occurred occasionally in small fish and before, during, and after the spawning season. In addition, sex change was observed in pre-spawning female-only aggregations as well on the spawning grounds, indicating male social cues are not requisite. We propose that shallow-water, pre-spawning aggregations are a key spatio-temporal bottleneck to Gag productivity. They appear to be an important source of transitionals and are heavily fished, which may negatively impact male recruitment to the spawning grounds. Our results indicate overall Gag abundance is low, MPAs do not protect all recruiting males (as previously assumed), and current regulations are not enough for the male population to recover to historic levels (~17% male).