Long-term shifts in the species composition of a coastal fish community

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To study decadal shifts in a coastal nekton community, we analyzed data on 25 fish and invertebrate species collected from 1959 to 2005 by University of Rhode Island, Graduate School of Oceanography (Narragansett, Rhode Island, USA). This weekly trawl survey samples two locations: inside Narragansett Bay and in Rhode Island Sound. Over four decades, the community has shifted progressively from vertebrates to invertebrates and, especially since 1980, from benthic to pelagic species. Demersal species that declined include winter flounder (Pseudopleuronectes americanus), silver hake (Merluccius bilinearis), and red hake (Urophycis chuss); meanwhile warm-water fish (butterfish, Peprilus triacanthus; scup, Stenotomus chrysops) and invertebrates (lobster, crab, squid) increased with time. Total numbers reached a maximum in the 1990s, while mean body size decreased. Taxonomic diversity increased over time, as the community shifted from fish to invertebrates of several phyla. The shifts in species composition correlate most strongly with spring-summer sea surface temperature, which increased 1.6 °C over the 47-year time series. Species composition was also correlated with the winter North Atlantic Oscillation index and chlorophyll concentration, which has declined since the 1970s. Triggered primarily by rising temperatures, these decadal changes have altered the trophic structure of the nekton community, resulting in a shift from benthic to pelagic consumers. © 2008 NRC.

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Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences