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Predictability of reef fish recruitment in a highly variable nursery habitat


There has been a lengthy debate on whether the abundance of adult reef fishes depends on prerecruitment or postrecruitment processes; however, we still do not have the ability to predict the magnitude of local fish recruitment. Here we show that the success of the leopard grouper (Myeteroperea rosacea) recruitment in the Gulf of California, Mexico, is determined by the availability of nursery habitat, which in turn is strongly correlated to climate conditions. Observational and experimental studies showed that leopard grouper larvae recruit preferentially on shallow rocky bottoms with brown algal (Sargassum spp.) beds, and that abundance of recruits is determined by the availability of Sargassum. The biomass of Sargassum decreases linearly with an increase in the Multivariate El Niflo Southern Oscillation (ENSO) Index (MEI; an index positively correlated with water temperature and negatively correlated with nutrient availability). We analyzed the relationship between the interannual variation of MEI and the recruitment of the leopard grouper using field estimates of abundance of juvenile groupers. Our results show that there is a nonlinear relationship between recruitment and the oceanographic climate, in that the density of recruits decreases exponentially with increasing MEI. The predictability of leopard grouper recruitment has important implications for fisheries management, since it could allow adaptive management without expensive stock assessment programs.

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