Evidence for density-dependent mortality in recruitment of a temperate reef fish, cunner Tautogolabrus adspersus, among similar reefs in the vicinity of an anthropogenic disturbance

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Determining the factors that regulate recruitment of cunner Tautogolabrus adspersus, a temperate reef fish, can help assess the effect of an anthropogenic disturbance on population abundance. The relative abundance of cunner recruits was tracked over 1 reproductive season via visual counts on line transects across similar habitats at 4 sites across 3 boulder reefs in the vicinity of the Pilgrim Nuclear Power Station (PNPS) in Plymouth, Massachusetts, USA. Habitat characteristics including macroalgae structure, canopy height, rugosity (a measure of structure complexity), temperature, and visibility were measured at each site to assess the influence of these factors on recruit abundance. We assumed that immigration and emigration were not responsible for recruit abundance patterns through time due to the sedentary life history of cunner recruits. We observed differences in recruit abundance over the settlement period among reefs which were likely the result of differences in settlement. However recruitment at the end of the post-settlement period was similar across reefs. Recruit mortality rates among reefs differed in the post-settlement period, with the reef that had the highest density also having the highest mortality rate. Post-settlement mortality rates provided evidence for density-dependent mortality, since habitat and abiotic factors failed to explain the difference in mortality among reefs. Consequently, because of the existence of density-dependent processes in the post-settlement stages, entrainment mortality of the pre-settlement egg and larval stages by the PNPS will have a diminished effect on the local cunner population. An additional assessment of within-reef variability in recruitment also suggests recruitment success is sensitive to small changes in habitat structure which can occur over the recruitment season.







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