Baseline ecological studies of mesophotic coral ecosystems are lacking in the equatorial Indo-West Pacific region where coral reefs are highly threatened by anthropogenic and climate-induced disturbances. Here, we used baited remote underwater video to describe benthic habitat and fish assemblage structure from 10 to 80 m depth at Apo Island, a well-managed marine protected area in the Philippines. We conducted surveys 2 yr after two storms (in 2011 and 2012) caused severe damage to shallow coral communities within the no-take marine reserve (NTMR) of Apo Island, which led to declines in fish populations that had built up over three decades. We found that hard coral cover was restricted to < 40 m deep in the storm-impacted NTMR and a nearby fished area not impacted by storms. Benthic cover at mesophotic depths (> 30 m) was dominated by sand/rubble and rock (dead coral) with low cover of soft corals, sponges and macroalgae. Storm damage appeared to have reached the deepest limit of the fringing reef (40 m) and reduced variability in benthic structure within the NTMR. Species richness and/or abundance of most trophic groups of fish declined with increasing depth regardless of storm damage. There were differences in taxonomic and trophic structure and degree of targeting by fisheries between shallow and mesophotic fish assemblages. Threatened shark species and a fish species previously unreported in the Philippines were recorded at mesophotic depths. Our findings provide a first glimpse of the benthic and fish assemblage structure of Philippine coral reef ecosystems across a wide depth gradient. This work also underscores how a combination of limited coral reef development at mesophotic depths close to shallow reefs and severe habitat loss caused by storms would result in minimal depth refuge for reef fish populations.
Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV)