Coral reefs are subjected to unprecedented levels of disturbance with population growth and climate change combining to reduce standing coral cover and stocks of reef fishes. Most of the damage is concentrated in shallow waters (<30 m deep) where humans can comfortably operate and where physical disturbances are most disruptive to marine organisms. Yet coral reefs can extend to depths exceeding 100 m, potentially offering refuge from the threats facing shallower reefs. We deployed baited remote underwater stereo-video systems (stereo-BRUVs) at depths of 10–90 m around the southern Mariana Islands to investigate whether fish species targeted by fishing in the shallows may be accruing benefits from being at depth. We show that biomass, abundance and species richness of fishery-targeted species increased from shallow reef areas to a depth of 60 m, whereas at greater depths, a lack of live coral habitat corresponded to lower numbers of fish. The majority of targeted species were found to have distributions that ranged from shallow depths (10 m) to depths of at least 70 m, emphasising that habitat, not depth, is the limiting factor in their vertical distribution. While the gradient of abundance and biomass versus depth was steepest for predatory species, the first species usually targeted by fishing, we also found that fishery-targeted herbivores prevailed in similar biomass and species richness to 60 m. Compared to shallow marine protected areas, there was clearly greater biomass of fishery-targeted species accrued in mesophotic depths. Particularly some species typically harvested by depth-limited fishing methods (e.g., spearfishing), such as the endangered humphead wrasse Cheilinus undulatus, were found in greater abundance on deeper reefs. We conclude that mesophotic depths provide essential fish habitat and refuge for fishery-targeted species, representing crucial zones for fishery management and research into the resilience of disturbed coral reef ecosystems.
Micronesia - Mariana Islands
Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV)