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MEPS prepress abstract   -  DOI: https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13403

Determinants of the nursery role of seagrass meadows in the sub-tropical Gulf of Mexico: inshore-offshore connectivity for snapper and grouper

F. Joel Fodrie*, Kenneth L. Heck Jr. , C. Fred T. Andrus, Sean P. Powers

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Quantifying the nursery role of habitats or locations in supporting fisheries is central to understanding population-scale animal-habitat relationships, and in guiding ecosystem-based management. We assessed the nursery role of northern Gulf of Mexico seagrass meadows for gray snapper, lane snapper, and gag recruiting to Alabama’s extensive offshore reef complex. We accomplished this using broadscale juvenile trawl surveys and geochemical tags - indicative of past habitat use - stored in the otoliths of >2,200 fishes. These natural tags revealed that 47-61% of snapper and gag recruits to Alabama reefs originated in Florida panhandle seagrass nurseries. Seagrass meadows in Alabama and Mississippi were also important nurseries for snappers and gag, contributing 26-46% of recruits. Despite high juvenile snapper and gag catches along the extensive Chandeleur Islands, Louisiana, relatively few of those fishes recruited to Alabama’s reefs (<13% of total recruits, across species), although they may have recruited to populations outside our sampling domain. Beyond the applied value of these data for resource management (i.e., interstate connectivity), our findings highlight broadscale drivers of the nursery role of juvenile habitats for coastal marine populations. These factors include: (1) juvenile habitat extent (i.e., extensive Florida panhandle meadows sourced the most recruits for Alabama fisheries); (2) proximity between juvenile and adult habitats (i.e., highest unit-area contribution from Alabama-Mississippi meadows); and (3) unidirectional, alongshore migration of egressing juveniles (i.e., primarily east-to-west movement, enhancing connectivity with Florida panhandle nurseries, and dampening connectivity with Chandeleur nurseries).