We evaluated goliath grouper's [Epinephelus itajara (Lichtenstein, 1822)] use of mangroves as essential nursery habitat by estimating absolute abundance, density, survival, age structure, home range, mangrove habitat association, habitat quality, and recruitment to the adult
population. Densities (numbers km−1 mangrove shoreline) were calculated using Jolly-Seber mark-recapture methods for mangrove-lined rivers and mangrove islands of the Ten Thousand Islands (TTI) and Everglades National Park, which includes Florida Bay, Florida, USA. Juveniles
had smaller home ranges around islands (170 m) than in rivers (586 m), as determined from observations on telemetered fish. Goliath grouper remained in mangrove habitats for 5–6 yrs (validated ages from dorsal spine sections), then emigrated from mangroves at about 1.0 m total length.
In the TTI, juvenile densities around mangrove islands were higher (mean = 25 km−1, SE = 6.2, CV = 0.5) and less variable than those in rivers (mean = 11 km−1, SE = 4.2, CV = 1.2). Density was negatively correlated with the frequency of dissolved oxygen and
salinity minima. Mean growth rate of recaptured fish around mangrove islands (0.358 mm d−1, 95% CL = 0.317–0.398) was significantly higher than that in rivers (0.289 mm d−1, 95% CL = 0.269–0.308). The annual survival rate, as estimated by the Kaplan-Meier
method on telemetered fish, was 0.947 (95% CL = 0.834–1.0). Very low densities in Florida Bay were probably related to other water-quality variables in this human-altered system. The offshore abundance of adults was largely explained by abundance of mangrove, but not seagrass habitat.
Mangrove habitat with suitable water conditions, which appears essential to the recovery and sustainability of goliath-grouper populations, should be protected and/or restored.
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