The Effects of Eelgrass Habitat Loss on Estuarine Fish Communities of Southern New England

  • Hughes J
  • Deegan L
  • Jason C
 et al. 
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Abstract

We studied the late June-August fish community in extant and former eelgrass (Zostera marina L.) habitats in 15 estuaries of Buzzards Bay, and in Waquoit Bay, Massachusetts, U. S. Our objective was to quantify the effects of eelgrass habitat loss on fish abundance, biomass, species composition and richness, life-history characteristics, and habitat use by examining the response of the fish community to eelgrass loss in Waquoit and Buttermilk Bays over an 11-yr period (1988-1999) and in 14 other embayments of Buzzards Bay during 1993, 1996, and 1998. Sampling sites were located in present-day or historical eelgrass beds and were classified according to eelgrass habitat complexity (zero complexity: no eelgrass; low complexity: < 100 eelgrass shoots or < 100 g wet weight m-2, high complexity: ≥ 100 shoots and ≥ 100 g wet weight m-2). Habitats that had lost eelgrass included a variety of substratum types, from bare mud bottom to dense accumulations of red, brown, and green macroalgae (up to 7,065 g wet weight m-2). Contemporaneous sampling of fish (by otter trawl) and vegetated habitat (by divers) was conducted at each site. Overall, fish abundance, biomass, species richness, dominance, and life history diversity decreased significantly along the gradient of decreasing eelgrass habitat complexity. Loss of eelgrass was accompanied by significant declines in these measures of fish community integrity. Ten of the 13 most common species collected from 1988-1996 in Waquoit and Buttermilk Bays showed maximum abundance and biomass in sites with high eelgrass habitat complexity. All but two common species declined in abundance and biomass with the complete loss of eelgrass.

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Authors

  • Jeffrey E Hughes

  • Linda A Deegan

  • C Wyda Jason

  • Melissa J Weaver

  • Amos Wright

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