Spatial and Temporal Shifts in Estuarine Nursery Habitats Used by Juvenile Southern Flounder (Paralichthys lethostigma)
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Southern flounder (Parlichthys lethostigma) is a recreationally and commercially important flatfish species found in the Gulf of Mexico, and recent analyses indicate that the northern Gulf of Mexico population is in decline. For proper management, knowledge of habitats used throughout the juvenile stage is needed. The aim of the current study is to examine habitat use of young-of-year (YOY) southern flounder in the Galveston Bay complex using habitat distribution models and acoustic telemetry. A set of habitat distribution models examined how habitat use changes during the first year of life. In addition, southern flounder were tagged with acoustic telemetry transmitters and monitored with a novel receiver array that allows for measurements of fine-scale movements. These movements were compared to habitat maps to examine habitat selection. Habitat distribution models determined that habitat requirements for southern flounder change with ontogeny and season. Newly settled southern flounder were most influenced by physicochemical parameters and the presence of seagrass beds. YOY southern flounder, however, showed increased occurrence at freshwater inlets during summer and fall months, and occurrence decreased at tidal inlets during the fall. Predictions of habitat suitability across the Galveston Bay complex indicate that the factors influencing occurrence of southern flounder change with season, ontogeny, and availability of suitable habitats. With acoustic telemetry, it was apparent that habitat use by southern flounder was nonrandom and influenced by benthic and other physicochemical conditions. Habitat analyses indicated that southern flounder used sand habitats more frequently than seagrass, oyster reef, or salt marsh habitats. Telemetry results also indicated that depth and water temperature were important determinants of habitat suitability for YOY southern flounder, with individuals preferring deeper and cooler regions of the water column in Christmas Bay. Both model and telemetry analyses indicate that habitat use by YOY southern flounder is dynamic across multiple spatial and temporal scales, with distributions and movements influenced strongly by ontogenetic changes in habitat associations, temporal and spatial variability in physicochemical conditions, and tidal cycles.