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The habitat value of modified rack and bag, shellfish aquaculture gear (SAG) used for the grow-out phase of the American oyster, Crassostrea virginica, submerged aquatic vegetation (SAV), Zostera marina, and a shallow nonvegetated seabed (NVSB) was comparatively evaluated over a 1-year period in Pt. Judith Pond, a tidal estuary in Southern Rhode Island. Enclosure gear was used to sample the three ecotypes, and organisms (>5 mm) were identified, enumerated, and measured to the nearest millimeter. Abundances of marine organisms and species diversity indices were used as measures of the habitat value of these ecotypes within each season. Environmental and geological parameters were not significantly different between the habitats. Emergent surface area (cm2 m-2 of seabed) within each ecotype was estimated, and used to evaluate its role in providing habitat. The SAG habitat had a significantly greater surface area than either the SAV or NVSB habitats during all seasons. The physical structure of the SAG habitat protects juvenile fish from predators and provides substrate for sessile invertebrates that serve as forage for fish and invertebrates. The SAG habitat supported a significantly higher abundance of organisms per m of seabed throughout the year. Species richness was also significantly greater in the SAG habitat compared with the SAV and NVSB habitats. A 2-way ANOVA indicated significant differences in species diversity (Shannon-Weiner index) between habitats. Tukey’s HSD test indicated that the SAG habitat had significantly higher species diversity than the NVSB habitat, but no significant difference in species diversity was found between the SAG and SAV habitats. These findings indicate that shellfish aquaculture gear provides habitat for many organisms throughout the year, and is especially beneficial to ecosystems that support native species of recreationally and commercially important fish and invertebrates in their early life history stages. Therefore, we conclude that shellfish aquaculture gear has substantially greater habitat value than a shallow nonvegetated seabed, and has habitat value at least equal to and possibly superior to submerged aquatic vegetation.

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