Submersible video, supplemented with sonar surveys, was analyzed for habitat characteristics and variation of fish assemblages in shelf-edge and upper-slope reefs within proposed marine protected areas off the southeastern United States. Distinct fish assemblages were found between
shelf-edge and upper-slope dive locations. Shelf-edge reefs were further categorized into morphology types, which were empirically defined based on rock shape and the amount of relief present. Variation in fish density was contrasted among the six reef morphology types observed: slab pavement,
blocked boulders, buried blocked boulders, low-relief bioeroded rock, moderate-relief bioeroded rock, and high-relief bioeroded rock. High-relief bioeroded rock was the most densely populated reef morphology type when compared to all others. Four species had significantly varying densities
on different reef morphology types, with three species having higher densities on structurally complex morphologies when compared to low-relief morphologies. Several other species also had significantly varying densities among different shelf-edge dive locations, with dive locations containing
complex reef morphology types (high-relief bioeroded rock and blocked boulders) being more densely populated than dive locations containing low-relief morphology types. Reproductive behavior was incidentally observed for five commercially-important fish species at all dive locations. This
study provides information on factors relevant to the placement of marine protected areas (MPAs), including reef morphology descriptions, areas of high fish density and diversity, and important spawning habitat locations. Our data also provide a habitat-specific baseline for monitoring the
effects of MPAs on fish assemblages in the South Atlantic Bight (SAB).
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