Connectivity between shallow coral reefs and adjacent deeper habitats may be crucial to reef ecosystem stability. However, deeper habitats such as mesophotic coral ecosystems (MCEs) remain understudied. We investigated the depth structuring of shore-fish assemblages in the central Philippines across shallow (10–30 m) and mesophotic (upper: 30–60 m, lower: 60–90 m) depth zones. Baited video surveys in two coastal sites ~ 30 km apart showed strong declines with depth in fish species richness and abundance including fishery target species. Corallivores, herbivores/detritivores, omnivores and planktivores showed the strongest declines. Invertivores and generalist carnivores dominated abundance at mesophotic depths. Data from the coastal sites were analysed with published data from an offshore island (Apo Island) < 25 km away to provide broader insights on spatial variability of shore-fish depth structuring. The percentages of species that overlapped shallow and mesophotic depths were much lower in coastal sites (9–13%, 9–11%) than the island (20–26%), suggesting higher potential vertical connectivity in the latter. Mean assemblage similarities (Bray–Curtis) between shallow and mesophotic depth zones were found to be low at all sites (0.3–19.6) and decreased with depth. Fish assemblages gradually differed across depth zones at coastal sites but mesophotic assemblages at the island were more similar to the shallow coastal assemblages. Strong correlations between fish assemblages and benthic habitat were detected, suggesting that higher cover of rocky substratum at mesophotic depths facilitates vertical connectivity at the island. Our findings highlight benthic habitat as a driver of spatial variation in the depth structuring and vertical connectivity of shore-fish assemblages.
Baited Remote Underwater Video (BRUV)