In the Florida Keys coral reef ecosystem, delineation of reef fish distributions in relationship to habitat patterns is important for improving the design characteristics of fishery-independent surveys. Efficient survey design depends on analysis of fish distribution patterns to inform and improve the precision of future surveys. We used a diver visual survey to quantify occupancy patterns of preexploitation-size Black Grouper Mycteroperca bonaci and Red Grouper Epinephelus morio. The survey was based on a stratified random sampling design with strata reflecting cross-shelf coral reef habitat types. A multiple spatial scale modeling approach confirmed a cross-shelf occurrence gradient for Red Grouper, with higher nearer-to-shore occupancy probability and lower offshore occupancy probability. Black Grouper occurrence followed a latitudinal gradient, with higher occurrence probabilities in the lower Florida Keys than in the upper Keys. Local habitat characteristics measured within reef strata suggested that occupancy relationships for both species varied according to vertical relief. Our analysis also included multilevel slope coefficients (random effects), which revealed unforeseen variance structure in Black Grouper occurrence probability among cross-shelf reef strata. Our study improves on previous qualitative observations of juvenile grouper distributions in the Florida Keys and highlights the use of multilevel models in revealing variance structures of fish distributions not revealed by fixed-effects models. Our analysis contributes to a discussion about foraging characteristics in producing the observed distributional patterns, and we suggest that examining the links between the distributions of forage fishes and larger predators (i.e., groupers) would be a useful step in improving survey stratification schemes.
ASJC Scopus subject areas
- Ecology, Evolution, Behavior and Systematics
- Aquatic Science