Latitudinal patterns in reef fish assemblage structure: the influence of long-term and short-term processes

Caine Delacy

    Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

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    Latitudinal patterns in reef fish assemblages reflect the influence of long-term environmental conditions, evolutionary processes and the recent, short-term influence of fishing. Long-term processes generate the typically common latitudinal patterns in reef fish assemblages, such as decreases in diversity and herbivory towards higher latitudes. These patterns reflect the global gradient in water temperature and the isolation of temperate regions from the tropics. Fishing also influences reef fish assemblages in that it decreases the abundance of large-bodied carnivore species on reefs, often leading to over-exploitation, depletion and in some cases the extirpation of populations. Indirectly, the removal of these large-bodied carnivores can influence the abundance of their prey, leading to an increase in non-target species. This study examines the latitudinal patterns in reef fish assemblages across a unique biogeographic region, the temperate Western Australian coast, and incorporates an investigation of the influence of fishing on the structure of these assemblages. Seven regions across seven degrees of latitude and seven degrees of longitude covering approximately 1500 km of coastline were sampled. Fish assemblages were characterised at each region using diver operated stereo-video transects. At each region, four locations, and within each location, four reefs were surveyed totalling 1344 transects. A significant gradient in water temperature exists with latitude and longitude. Along the Western Australian coast, and in contrast to other regions species diversity of reef fish increased towards higher latitudes and there was no evidence for a decrease in the biomass and abundance of herbivorous reef fish. The presence of the poleward flowing warm water Leeuwin current combined with the absence of major extinction events means the temperate Western Australian coast contrasts with global latitudinal trends in reef fish assemblage structure. The unique biogeographic history of temperate Western Australia has also generated a high degree of endemism among reef fish. Nearly 30% of the species found along the west coast in this study are endemic to Western Australia, with the narrow range of these species playing an important role in the large scale patterns and spatial vi heterogeneity in reef fish assemblage structure. Furthermore, many of these endemic species are large-bodied carnivores and targeted by fishers. The impact of fishing on the abundance of large-bodied carnivores throughout the Western Australian temperate region is clear both spatially and temporally. The distribution of fishing effort is greatest along the west coast and decreases towards the south following the gradient in SST. Along the west coast, high levels of fishing effort have reduced the biomass and abundance of target carnivores to well below the standing biomass of the south coast where a low level of fishing effort occurs. This reduction in biomass is related to the historical declines in catch per unit effort (CPUE) of many key target species. These target species include endemic species such as Choerodon rubescens, Glaucosoma herbraicum, Epinephilides armatus Nemadactylus valenciennesi and Achoerodus gouldii.
    Original languageEnglish
    QualificationDoctor of Philosophy
    Publication statusUnpublished - 2008


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