Fish and seagrass communities vary across a marine reserve boundary, but seasonal variation in small fish abundance overshadows top-down effects of large consumer exclosures
A growing number of examples indicate that large predators can alter seagrass ecosystem structure and processes via top-down trophic interactions. However, the nature and strength of those interactions varies with biogeographic context, emphasizing the need for region-specific investigations. We investigated spatial and temporal variation in predatory fish and seagrass communities across a Marine Protected Area (MPA) boundary in the Banana River Lagoon, Florida (USA), assessing trophic roles of intermediate consumers, and performing a large-consumer exclusion experiment in the MPA. Large, predatory fishes were most abundant within the MPA, while some mid-sized fishes were more abundant outside it. Small, seagrass-resident fishes, epifaunal invertebrates, and macrophytes also differed across the MPA boundary, but varied more among individual sites and seasonally. We cannot conclusively attribute these patterns to MPA status because we lack data from prior to MPA establishment and lack study replication at the level of MPA. Nevertheless, other patterns among our data are consistent with hypothesized mechanisms of top-down control. E.g., inverse seasonal patterns in the abundance of organisms at adjacent trophic levels, coupled with stable C and N isotope and gut contents data, suggest top-down control of crustacean grazers by seasonal recruitment of small fishes. Large-consumer exclosures in the MPA increased the abundance of mid-sized predatory and omnivorous fishes, but had few impacts on lower trophic levels. Results suggest that large-scale variation in large, predatory fish abundance in this system does not strongly affect seagrass-resident fish, invertebrate, and algal communities, which appear to be driven more by habitat structure and seasonal variation in small fish abundance.