Investigating the role of the Mid-Atlantic inner continental shelf as a marine finfish nursery: a comparative approach

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The paradigm of estuarine-dependence in marine fishes has been challenged by evidence of facultative recruitment by juveniles to both estuarine and inner continental shelf (ICS) nursery habitats. This ecological flexibility suggests that the potential nursery area for marine fishes may be more expansive than previously considered. Two lines of investigation were undertaken to evaluate the overarching hypothesis that ICS habitats serve a nursery function for finfish that also use estuarine nurseries: 1) a direct comparison of seasonal, annual and compositional assemblage structure between an ICS habitat of the Middle Atlantic Bight (Delmarva Peninsula) and an adjacent estuary (lower Chesapeake Bay); and 2) an investigation of trophic structuring within an ICS demersal finfish assemblage with an emphasis on ontogenetic niche. In comparisons between nursery types, there was a strong seasonal similarity in assemblage structure between the estuary and ICS despite significant differences in abundance estimates at the species level. Juvenile trophic niche of two indicator species, bluefish and bay anchovy, was wider and more diverse in the estuary yet physiological condition was similar or higher in the ICS. In focused studies on the ICS food web, diet overlap was common among consumers, yet stable isotope evidence indicated prey resources were partitioned along vertical (trophic position) and horizontal (pelagic-benthic pathway) trophic axes. Benthic and pelagic food webs were tightly coupled in most juvenile phase finfish; yet, this relationship showed signs of decoupling in older age classes, suggesting an increased reliance on benthic trophic pathways with age and size. Several prey species that link pelagic and benthic food webs were shown to be important in the diets of demersal finfish, particularly mysid shrimp. Comparative assemblage and food web studies demonstrated that the ICS functions as summer nursery habitat for a wide variety of temperate marine finfish that also use proximal estuarine nurseries. The contribution of ICS nurseries to annual juvenile production represents a critical, but unknown component of population demographics for many marine species and must be considered to conserve essential fish habitats and account for recruitment variability in fisheries stock assessments.