Using an oceanographic model to investigate the mystery of the missing puerulus

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Dynamics of ocean boundary currents and associated shelf processes can influence onshore and offshore water transport, critically impacting marine organisms that release long-lived pelagic larvae into the water column. The western rock lobster, Panulirus cygnus, endemic to Western Australia, is the basis of Australia's most valuable wild-caught commercial fishery. After hatching, western rock lobster larvae (phyllosoma) spend up to 11 months in offshore waters before ocean currents and their ability to swim transports them back to the coast. The abundance of western rock lobster post-larvae (puerulus) provides a puerulus index used by fishery managers as a predictor of lobster abundance 3–4 years later. This index has historically been positively correlated with the strength of the Leeuwin Current. In 2008 and 2009, the Leeuwin Current was strong, yet a settlement failure occurred throughout the fishery, prompting management changes and a rethinking of environmental factors associated with their settlement. Thus, understanding factors that may have been responsible for the settlement failure is essential for fishery management. Oceanographic parameters likely to influence puerulus settlement were derived for 17 years to investigate correlations. Analysis indicated that puerulus settlement at adjacent monitoring sites has similar oceanographic forcing, with kinetic energy in the offshore and the strength of the Leeuwin Current being key factors. Settlement failure years were synonymous with “hiatus” conditions in the southeast Indian Ocean and periods of sustained cooler water present offshore. Post-2009, there has been an unusual but consistent increase in the Leeuwin Current during the early summer months, with a matching decrease in the Capes Current, which may explain an observed settlement timing mismatch compared to historical data. Our study has revealed that a culmination of these conditions likely led to the recruitment failure and subsequent changes in puerulus settlement patterns.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)517–539
Number of pages23
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - 28 Jan 2022


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