Distribution and habitat associations of billfish and swordfish larvae across mesoscale features in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Ichthyoplankton surveys were conducted in surface waters of the northern Gulf of Mexico (NGoM) over a three-year period (2006-2008) to determine the relative value of this region as early life habitat of sailfish (Istiophorus platypterus), blue marlin (Makaira nigricans), white marlin (Kajikia albida), and swordfish (Xiphias gladius). Sailfish were the dominant billfish collected in summer surveys, and larvae were present at 37.5% of the stations sampled. Blue marlin and white marlin larvae were present at 25.0% and 4.6% of the stations sampled, respectively, while swordfish occurred at 17.2% of the stations. Areas of peak production were detected and maximum density estimates for sailfish (22.09 larvae 1000 m(-2)) were significantly higher than the three other species: blue marlin (9.62 larvae 1000 m(-2)), white marlin (5.44 larvae 1000 m(-2)), and swordfish (4.67 larvae 1000 m(-2)). The distribution and abundance of billfish and swordfish larvae varied spatially and temporally, and several environmental variables (sea surface temperature, salinity, sea surface height, distance to the Loop Current, current velocity, water depth, and Sargassum biomass) were deemed to be influential variables in generalized additive models (GAMs). Mesoscale features in the NGoM affected the distribution and abundance of billfish and swordfish larvae, with densities typically higher in frontal zones or areas proximal to the Loop Current. Habitat suitability of all four species was strongly linked to physicochemical attributes of the water masses they inhabited, and observed abundance was higher in slope waters with lower sea surface temperature and higher salinity. Our results highlight the value of the NGoM as early life habitat of billfishes and swordfish, and represent valuable baseline data for evaluating anthropogenic effects (i.e., Deepwater Horizon oil spill) on the Atlantic billfish and swordfish populations.