Cross-shelf habitat shifts by red snapper (Lutjanus campechanus) in the Gulf of Mexico.
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Habitat shifts that occur during the life cycles of marine fishes influence population connectivity and structure. A generalized additive modeling approach was used to characterize relationships between environmental variables and the relative abundance of red snapper Lutjanus campechanus over unconsolidated substrate on the continental shelf (<150 m) of the U.S. Gulf of Mexico (GoM) at three different life stages: juvenile (age-0, <125 mm FL), sub-adult (age-1-2, 125-300 mm FL), and adult (age-2+, >300 mm FL). Fisheries independent data (2008-2014) were used to develop separate models for both the eastern and western GoM, and final models were used to predict the relative availability of suitable habitat for each life stage across the two regions. Predictor variables included in final models varied by age class and region, with depth, dissolved oxygen, longitude, and distance to artificial structure common to most models. Depth was among the most influential variables in all models, and preferred depth increased with increasing size/age. Regional differences in fish-habitat relationships were also observed, as relative abundance of larger red snapper over unconsolidated substrates was more closely linked to artificial structure in the eastern GoM. The location of predicted high quality habitat for juvenile red snapper was greatest on the inner Texas shelf and a smaller area east of the Mississippi River Delta, suggesting these two areas may represent important nursery grounds for the respective regions. Clear ontogenetic shifts in the spatial distribution of predicted high quality habitat were evident in both the eastern (expansion from west to east with age) and western (shift from inshore to offshore) GoM. Given the unique population dynamics between the eastern and western GoM, improving our understanding of spatial and temporal variability in habitat quality may be important to maintaining connectivity between juvenile and adult habitats, and may enhance recovery and management of red snapper stocks in the GoM.