Defining habitat characteristics influencing the distribution, density and growth of Plaice (Pleuronectes Platessa) and Dab (Limanda Limanda) on west of Ireland nursery grounds
Raedemaecker, De Fien
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Plaice (Pleuronectes platessa, L.) and dab (Limanda limanda, L.) are among the most abundant flatfishes in the north-eastern Atlantic region and the dominant species in shallow coastal nursery grounds. With increasing pressures on commercial flatfish stocks in combination with changing coastal environments, better knowledge of population dynamics during all life stages is needed to evaluate variability in year-class strength and recruitment to the fishery. The aim of this research was to investigate the complex interplay of biotic and abiotic habitat components influencing the distribution, density and growth of plaice and dab during the vulnerable juvenile life stage and to gain insight in spatial and temporal differences in nursery habitat quality along the west coast of Ireland. Intraspecific variability in plaice diet was observed at different spatial scales and showed a link with condition, recent growth and morphology. This highlights the effect of food availability on habitat quality and the need to consider small scale variation when attempting to link habitat quality to feeding, growth and condition of juvenile flatfish. There was evidence of trophic, spatial and temporal resource partitioning between juvenile plaice and dab allowing the co-existence of morphologically similar species in nursery grounds. In the limited survey years there was no evidence that the carrying capacity of the studied nursery grounds was reached but spatial and interannual variations in fish growth indicated fluctuating environments in terms of food availability, predator densities, sediment features and physico-chemical conditions. Predation was the most important factor affecting habitat quality for juvenile plaice and dab with crab densities negatively correlated to fish condition whereas shrimp densities were negatively associated with densities of small-sized juveniles in spring. A comparison of proxies for fish growth showed the advantage of Fulton’s K for routine use whereas RNA:DNA ratios proved less powerful when short-term environmental fluctuations are lacking. This study illustrated how distinct sets of habitat features can drive spatial variation in density and condition of juvenile flatfish highlighting the value of studying both variables when modeling habitat requirements. The habitat models generated in this study also provide a powerful tool to predict potential climate and anthropogenic impacts on the distribution and condition of juveniles in flatfish nurseries. The need for effective coastal zone management was emphasized to ensure a sustainable use of coastal resources and successful flatfish recruitment to the fishery.
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