Various reef types worldwide have inconsistent relationships among fish assemblage parameters and benthic characteristics, thus there is a need to identify factors driving assemblage structure specific to each reef type and locale. Limestone ledges are known to be key habitats for bottom
fish on the continental shelf of the southeastern USA, however, the specific factors that link them to fish assemblages have not been quantified. Bottom fishes and habitat characteristics on ledges were surveyed at a study site located centrally in the southeastern USA continental shelf. Species
richness, diversity, abundance, and biomass of fish were higher at ledges than on flat bottom. Species richness, abundance, and biomass of fish were well explained by ledge variables including percent cover of sessile invertebrates, total height, and height of undercut recesses. Multivariate
analyses based on biomass of individual species at ledges revealed two fish assemblages associated with four ledge types. One assemblage was associated with ledges that were tall, heavily colonized with sessile invertebrates, large in area, and did or did not have undercuts. The other assemblage
was associated with ledges that were short, not undercut, smaller in area, and were or were not heavily colonized by invertebrates. Seafloor classification schemes presently used in the region do not adequately capture hard bottom diversity to identify the location and extent of essential
fish habitats for ecological and fisheries purposes. Given that ledges cover only ∼1% to 5% of the southeastern USA continental shelf, they merit the highest levels of consideration in regional research, conservation, and management plans.
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