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Ecological Applications








Coastal habitats that serve as nursery grounds for numerous marine species are badly degraded, yet the traditional means of modeling populations of exploited marine species handle spatiotemporal changes in habitat characteristics and life history dynamics poorly, if at all. To explore how nursery habitat degradation impacts recruitment of a mobile, benthic species, we developed a spatially explicit, individual-based model that describes the recruitment of Caribbean spiny lobster (Panulirus argus) in the Florida Keys, where a cascade of environmental disturbances has reconfigured nursery habitat structure. In recent years, the region has experienced a series of linked perturbations, among them, seagrass die-offs, cyanobacteria blooms, and the mass mortality of sponges. Sponges are important shelters for juvenile spiny lobster, an abundant benthic predator that also sustains Florida's most valuable fishery. In the model, we simulated monthly settlement of individual lobster postlarvae and the daily growth, mortality, shelter selection, and movement of individual juvenile lobsters on a spatially explicit grid of habitat cells configured to represent the Florida Keys coastal nursery. Based on field habitat surveys, cells were designated as either seagrass or hard-bottom, and hard-bottom cells were further characterized in terms of their shelter- and size-specific lobster carrying capacities. The effect of algal blooms on sponge mortality, hence lobster habitat structure, was modeled based on the duration of exposure of each habitat cell to the blooms. Ten-year simulations of lobster recruitment with and without algal blooms suggest that the lobster population should be surprisingly resilient to massive disturbances of this type. Data not used in model development showed that predictions of large changes in lobster shelter utilization, yet small effects on recruitment in response to blooms, were realistic. The potentially severe impacts of habitat loss on recruitment were averted by compensatory changes in habitat utilization and mobility by larger individuals, coupled with periods of fortuitously high larval settlement. Our model provides an underutilized approach for assessing habitat effects on open populations with complex life histories, and our results illustrate the potential pitfalls of relying on intuition to infer the effects of habitat perturbations on upper trophic levels.

Original Publication Citation

Butler, M.J., Dolan, T.W., Hunt, J.H., Rose, K.A., & Herrnkind, W.F. (2005). Recruitment in degraded marine habitats: A spatially explicit, individual-based model for spiny lobster. Ecological Applications, 15(3), 902-918. doi: 10.1890/04-1081