Climatic conditions and nursery habitat quality provide indicators of reef fish recruitment strength
Identifying and protecting nursery habitats for species is a key conservation strategy for the long-term sustainability of populations. In tropical ecosystems, macroalgal habitats have recently been identified as nurseries for fish of commercial and conservation significance. Here, we explore how local-scale variations in seaweed habitat quality interact with large-scale climatic conditions (Southern Oscillation Index, SOI) to influence the recruitment of three tropical fish species (Lethrinusspp.), often targeted by fishers. New fish recruits and juveniles of all species were almost exclusively found in macroalgal nursery habitats, while adults of two of these species were predominantly found on adjacent coral reefs. Annual supply rates of new recruits were found to be strongly correlated to variations in the SOI, with La Nina conditions associated with higher recruitment. However, local rates of recruitment were generally poor predictors of older juvenile abundance. Instead, local juvenile abundance was more closely related to structural characteristics of macroalgae nursery habitat quality (density, canopy height, canopy cover) and/or predator biomass, at the time of survey, with species-specific habitat associations apparent. Given the dynamic nature of fish recruitment supply to the SOI, coupled with the effects of climatic and oceanic processes on the structure of macroalgal patches, these results suggest protection of macroalgal nursery habitats that maintain high canopy density, height and cover is critical to supporting the conservation of fish populations.