Habitat and Fish Populations in the Deep-Sea Oculina Coral Ecosystem of the Western Atlantic
Christopher C. Koenig, Andrew N. Shepard, John K. Reed, Felicia C. Coleman, Sandra D. Brooke, John Brusher, and Kathryn M. Scanlon
Abstract. The growth form of the scleractinian ivory tree coral Oculina varicosa (also known as fused ivory tree coral) that occurs on the shelf edge off Florida’s eastern coast is unique for this species. Here, the branching coral colonies coalesce into thickets supporting high vertebrate and invertebrate biodiversity and high densities of economically important reef fish. In 1984, the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council took the first step to protect the area from trawling and other disruptive bottom activities. Despite these protective measures, however, there is evidence that trawling has damaged previously intact coral habitat. In this paper, we describe results from mapping studies conducted in 2001 and improvements to reef fish populations that have occurred in the last few years. We find that less than 10% of the area contains intact Oculina coral thickets, which we continue to attribute primarily to trawling. In addition, we find increased grouper density and male abundance inside the protected area, suggesting population recovery, and the appearance of juvenile speckled hind Epinephelus drummondhayi (family Serranidae), suggesting nursery function for this and possibly other commercially important species.