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Regional variation in seagrass complexity drives blue crab Callinectes sapidus mortality and growth across the northern Gulf of Mexico

Christian Todd Hayes*, Scott B. Alford, Benjamin A. Belgrad, Kelly M. Correia, M. Zachary Darnell, Bradley T. Furman, Margaret O. Hall, Charles W. Martin, Ashley M. McDonald, Delbert L. Smee, Kelly M. Darnell

*Corresponding author:

ABSTRACT: Seagrass meadows provide greater predator refuge and resource availability than unvegetated habitats and generally improve the survival and growth rates of associated animals. Few studies, however, have examined how these relationships might vary at a region-wide spatial scale. The blue crab (Callinectes sapidus) is a commercially important species that uses turtlegrass (Thalassia testudinum) habitats, but it is unclear if blue crab use of seagrass habitats varies across the northern Gulf of Mexico (GOM), USA. We conducted synoptic predation and growth experiments at six turtlegrass-dominated estuaries in the northern GOM to evaluate the role of seagrass structural complexity on juvenile (9.7–44 mm carapace width) blue crab mortality due to predation and growth. Relationships of blue crab mortality and growth rate with seagrass shoot density, canopy height, temperature, and seagrass leaf area index (LAI) were evaluated using linear and generalized linear mixed effects models. Mortality rates due to predation (50 ± 9.6 [mean ± SD] percent crabs eaten, n = 291) showed negative relationships with LAI across the northern GOM. Conversely, mean crab growth rate (0.513 ± 0.317 mm day-1) varied across the northern GOM but was independent of seagrass shoot density or canopy height. We found that: 1) turtlegrass-dominated beds with a greater seagrass leaf area index provided more effective cover for juvenile blue crabs across the northern GOM, 2) blue crabs across multiple GOM estuaries responded similarly to changes in leaf area index, and 3) blue crab growth varied across the northern GOM and was likely dependent on regional factors unrelated to structural complexity.