Patterns of benthic mega-invertebrate habitat associations in the Pacific Northwest continental shelf waters
As human impacts and demands for ocean space increase (fisheries, aquaculture, marine reserves, renewable energy), identification of marine habitats hosting sensitive biological assemblages has become a priority. Epifaunal invertebrates, especially the structure-forming species, are an increasing conservation concern as many traditional (bottom-contact fishing) and novel (marine renewable energy) ocean uses have the potential to displace or otherwise impact these slow-growing organisms. The differences in mega-invertebrate species assemblages between high-relief rocks and low-relief sediments are well documented and likely hold for most marine environments. In anticipation of potential development of marine renewable energy faculties off Oregon and Washington (USA), a survey of the benthic invertebrate assemblages and habitats was conducted on the continental shelf of the Pacific Northwest, using video footage collected by ROV, to more finely characterize these assemblage–habitat associations. Four main associations were found: pure mud/sand dominated by sea whips and burrowing brittle stars; mixed mud–rock (which may be further divided based on size of mixed-in rocks) characterized by various taxa at small densities; consolidated rocks characterized by high diversity and density of sessile or motile mega-invertebrates; and rubble rocks showing less diversity and density than the consolidated rocks, possibly due to the disturbance generated by movement of the unconsolidated rocks. The results of this study will help classify and map the seafloor in a way that represents benthic habitats reflective of biological species assemblage distributions, rather than solely geological features, and support conservation and management planning.