Projecting the Effects of 21st Century Climate Change on the Distribution and Phenology of Reef Fish Spawning Aggregations

Rebecca G Asch, East Carolina University, Greenville, NC, United States and Brad Erisman, University of Texas at Austin, Marine Science Institute, Port Aransas, TX, United States
Spawning fishes often have a narrower window of thermal tolerance than other life history stages. As a result, spawning has been hypothesized to constrain how species will respond to climate change. We assess this hypothesis by combining a global database of fish spawning aggregations with earth system and ecological niche models to project shifts in the spawning distribution and phenology of reef fishes under the RCP 8.5 climate change scenario. Nassau grouper (Epinephelus striatus) was selected as the species for a proof-of-concept analysis since it is a top predator on Caribbean coral reefs and is listed by IUCN as endangered due to overfishing at its spawning grounds. The highest probability of encountering E. striatus aggregations occurred at sea surface temperatures (SSTs) of 24.5-26.5° C and seasonal SST gradients of 0 to -1° C. Based on a 1981-2000 climatology, our model projected that the highest probability of spawning would occur around Cuba, the Mesoamerican barrier reef, the Bahamas, and other areas of the Caribbean. This coincides with the observed distribution of E. striatus aggregations. By 2081-2100, a 50% decline is projected in the number of months and locations with adequate conditions for E. striatus spawning. Potential spawning habitat for E. striatus shifts northward and eastward, with slight increases in the probability of spawning around Aruba, Curacao, and Bonaire. At spawning sites, primary production is projected to increase by a mean of 14%. Higher planktonic production could benefit larval fish growth and survival by providing a greater availability of prey. The E. striatus spawning season is projected to contract and occur later in the year. Two-month delays in phenology are projected at 78% of the sites where E. striatus populations are managed through spawning season sales bans and time/area fishing closures. This implies that adaptive management in response to climate change will be needed for these measures to remain effective.