Relative value of oyster reef as habitat for estuarine nekton in Galveston Bay, Texas
Stunz, G. W.
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Biogenic reefs formed by dense aggregations of the eastern oyster Crassostrea virginica are a dominant feature in most estuarine systems along the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico. Oyster reefs are complex in their structural nature and have long been recognized for their potential habitat value. However, relatively few studies have characterized nekton abundance in this complex habitat type, and live high-relief oyster beds have been particularly difficult to sample with conventional gear. We used a quantitative sampling device to compare nekton use among high-relief live oyster reef, vegetated marsh edge Spartina alterniflora, and nonvegetated bottom habitat types. During 1 yr of seasonal sampling we collected 3791 fishes and 12386 crustaceans representing 38 and 21 different species, respectively. Density and biomass of most fishes and crustaceans were significantly higher in oyster reef than over nonvegetated bottom. For benthic crustaceans, oyster reef supported a higher density and biomass than vegetated marsh edge. Nektonic crustaceans were generally more abundant in marsh edge than on oyster reef. Species composition and richness varied among habitat types and season; however, richness was highest in oyster reef, followed by marsh edge, and lowest on nonvegetated bottom, except during seasonal low densities during winter. Species composition and size differences were observed among habitat types. Our results show that oyster reef supports a high density, biomass, and richness of estuarine nekton in relation to typically examined estuarine habitat types and has the potential to be an essential habitat. Identifying and quantifying the role of oyster reefs will be critical to implementing effective management for essential fish habitat.