Quantitative surveys of sessile benthos and fish populations associated with reef habitats across a 15–50 m depth gradient were performed by direct diver observations using rebreathers at Isla Desecheo, Puerto Rico. Statistically significant differences between depths were found for total live coral, total coral species, total benthic algae, total sponges and abiotic cover. Live coral cover was higher at the mid-shelf (20 m) and shelf-edge (25 m) stations, whereas benthic algae and sponges were the dominant sessile-benthic assemblage at mesophotic stations below 25 m. Marked shifts in the community structure of corals and benthic algae were observed across the depth gradient. A total of 119 diurnal, non-cryptic fish species were observed across the depth gradient, including 80 species distributed among 7,841 individuals counted within belt-transects. Fish species richness was positively correlated with live coral cover. However, the relationship between total fish abundance and live coral was weak. Abundance of several numerically dominant fish species varied independently from live coral cover and appeared to be more influenced by depth and/or habitat type. Statistically significant differences in the rank order of abundance of fish species at euphotic vs mesophotic stations were detected. A small assemblage of reef fishes that included the cherubfish, Centropyge argi, sunshine chromis, Chromis insolata, greenblotch parrotfish, Sparisoma atomarium, yellowcheek wrasse, Halichoeres cyanocephalus, sargassum triggerfish, Xanthichthys ringens, and the longsnout butterflyfish, Chaetodon aculeatuswas most abundant or only present from stations deeper than 30 m, and thus appear to be indicator species of mesophotic habitats.
Overall benthic (groups)