Estuaries promote high levels of productivity and biodiversity by providing habitat for many biological communities due to their wide range of environmental conditions. Estuarine systems serve as nurseries, areas for parturition, and feeding grounds for elasmobranchs. However, estuaries face an array of anthropogenic pressures, including overfishing, altered flow regimes, pollution, and habitat destruction. Given the vulnerability of estuarine ecosystems, observing long-term changes in community structure is essential to understanding the effects of anthropogenic stressors. Elasmobranch community structure was analyzed among eight estuaries in the northwest Gulf of Mexico to evaluate spatial and temporal variability in species abundance and diversity using bi-annual fisheries independent gillnet survey data over three decades (1985–2014). Ten species comprised 99.4% of elasmobranchs caught which included 35.3% bull sharks (Carcharhinus leucas), 18.1% bonnetheads (Sphyrna tiburo), 17.0% cownose rays (Rhinoptera bonasus), 13.4% blacktip sharks (Carcharhinus limbatus), 5.9% Atlantic stingrays (Dasyatis sabina), 3.1% Atlantic sharpnose sharks (Rhizoprionodon terraenovae), 2.7% spinner sharks (Carcharhinus brevipinna), 2.1% scalloped hammerheads (Sphyrna lewini), 1.7% finetooth sharks (Carcharhinus isodon), and 0.7% lemon sharks (Negaprion brevirostris). During the study period, elasmobranch community structure changed among estuaries and among decades. Bull sharks, bonnetheads, cownose rays, blacktip sharks, and spinner sharks all increased in abundance during the study period, whereas finetooth sharks and lemon sharks decreased over time. Higher latitude estuaries were dominated by bull sharks while lower latitude estuaries were dominated by cownose rays. Salinity was the most important environmental variable in predicting individual elasmobranch species abundance (deviance explained: 14.4 ± 6.5 SD), while temperature and depth also played a role in shaping community structure. Diversity was greatest in mid-latitudinal estuaries with spatially and temporally dynamic salinity regimes. As environmental change and human impacts persist across much of the world, understanding environmental drivers of community structure using long-term datasets will provide insight to how these changes influence coastal ecosystems, and enable more comprehensive and scale-independent models to be developed for the management and conservation of coastal ecotones.
Estuarine Coastal and Shelf Science – Elsevier
Published: May 1, 2018
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