How important are mangroves and seagrass beds for coral-reef fish? The nursery hypothesis tested on an island scale
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I. Nagelkerken, C. M. Roberts, G. van der Velde, M. Dorenbosch, M. C. van Riel, E. Cocheret de la Morinière & P. H. Nienhuis


There has been much controversy over the degree to which mangroves and seagrass beds function as nursery habitats for the juveniles of fish species that live on coral reefs as adults. In previous studies we have shown that the juveniles of at least 17 Caribbean reef-fish species are highly associated with bays containing mangroves and seagrass beds as nurseries, and that juveniles of these species are absent in bays lacking such habitats. In this study we therefore hypothesised that on islands lacking these bay nursery habitats, adults of these fish species will be absent or show low densities on the coral reef. Densities of the 17 species were compared between the reefs of Caribbean islands with and without mangroves and seagrass beds. On reefs of islands lacking these habitats, complete absence or low densities were observed for 11 of the 17 species, several of which are of commercial importance to fisheries. This finding suggests a very important nursery function of such habitats and implies that the densities of several fish species on coral reefs are a function of the presence of nearby bays containing mangroves and seagrass beds as nurseries. The results indicate that degradation or loss of these habitats could have significant impacts on reef-fish stocks in the Caribbean.

Main Results and Conclusions:
  • The study was carried out in the reefs surrounding the Caribbean island of Grand Cayman where a total of 30 common fish species were observed (2).
  • The results of the study are as follows (3):
  • “When fish biomass was analyzed irrespective of body size, biomass of species that use a mangrove/seagrass nurseries as well as all species was significantly higher at sites close to nurseries than at isolated reef sites, independent of reserve effect (Fig. 3a…).”
  • “Size spectrum analysis showed that the response of large-bodied individuals (.25 cm TL) to protection from fishing in reserves and nursery access depended on whether they used nurseries as juveniles. For those species that used nurseries, total biomass was significantly greater in reserves (compared to fished areas) and when nursery access was high (vs. nursery-isolated areas) (Table 2; Fig. 3b).”
  • “A different pattern emerged for smaller bodied fishes (#25 cm TL). The abundance of species that utilized nurseries was positively associated with the presence of nurseries (Fig. 3b).”
  • The study showed a clear difference between the effects of nursery habitat vs. marine protection:
  •  Specifically for small bodied fish, the presence of mangrove nursery habitat greatly effected fishery yields: “Proximity to mangrove/seagrass nursery habitats by far outweighed the effects of protection from fishing (i.e., reserve effect) for reef fish that use mangrove/seagrass nurseries and whose body length was less than 25 cm. Whereas reserves had on average 21% lower biomass of small fish compared to fished areas (when combining both nursery treatments), presence of nursery habitat biomass led to a 249% higher biomass compared to reefs without nearby nursery habitat access (combining both protection treatments)…The present study indicates that the magnitude of this effect is such that fished areas with nursery access can have much higher standing stocks (in this case 2.5 fold) of small-bodied fishes than marine reserves that do not have nursery access”(3,4). 
  • Specifically for large bodied fish, the data from the study indicated that “…nursery presence and protection from fishing in reserves had an additive effect on the reef biomass of large nursery fish, with reserve presence contributing to a higher degree than nursery presence. Protection of the larger individuals of nursery species should thus not be restricted to areas close to nurseries, although they benefited most from fishery protection near nurseries. Nevertheless, nursery-access enhanced biomass of large nursery species in fished as well as reserve areas”(4).
  • Specifically for species of fish belonging to the families of grunts, snappers, and parrotfish, biomass “…was higher on reefs close to than far away from nurseries, which underlines the importance of ecosystem connectivity for reef resilience and ecosystem functioning”(5).
  • In conclusion, “The relative importance of nursery habitat and marine reserve presence on coral reef fish community structure depends on fish size and whether fish use mangrove/seagrass nurseries. Large individuals of nursery species that are commercially exploited seem similarly susceptible to fishing as other species and benefit most from protection in areas close to nurseries. For small individuals of nursery species, nursery habitat presence by far outweighed the effects of protection from fishing in marine reserves. The present study shows how ecosystem connectivity adds an additional level of complexity to marine reserve design and functioning”(6).



Works Cited:

Nagelkerken I, Dorenbosch M, Verberk WCEP, Cocheret de la Morinière E, van der Velde G (2000a) Importance of shallow-water biotopes of a Caribbean bay for juvenile coral reef fishes: patterns in biotope association, community structure and spatial distribution. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 202:175–192.

Nagelkerken I, van der Velde G (2002) Non-estuarine mangroves harbour higher densities of juvenile fish than adjacent shallow-water and coral reef habitats in Curaçao (Netherlands Antilles). Mar Ecol Prog Ser 245:in press

Nagelkerken I, van der Velde G, Gorissen MW, Meijer GJ, van‘t Hof T, den Hartog C (2000b) Importance of mangroves, seagrass beds and the shallow coral reef as a nursery for important coral reef fishes, using a visual census technique. Estuar Coast Shelf Sci 51:31–44.

Nagelkerken I, Kleijnen S, Klop T, van den Brand RACJ, Cocheret de la Morinière E, van der Velde G (2001) Dependence of Caribbean reef fishes on mangroves and seagrass beds as nursery habitats: a comparison of fish faunas between bays with and without mangroves/seagrass beds. Mar Ecol Prog Ser 214:225–235.