Quantifying fish assemblages in large, offshore marine protected areas: an Australian case study

s the number of marine protected areas (MPAs) increases globally, so does the need to assess if MPAs are meeting their management goals. Integral to this assessment is usually a long-term biological monitoring program, which can be difficult to develop for large and remote areas that have little available fine-scale habitat and biological data. This is the situation for many MPAs within the newly declared Australian Commonwealth Marine Reserve (CMR) network which covers approximately 3.1 million km2 of continental shelf, slope, and abyssal habitat, much of which is remote and difficult to access. A detailed inventory of the species, types of assemblages present and their spatial distribution within individual MPAs is required prior to developing monitoring programs to measure the impact of management strategies. Here we use a spatially-balanced survey design and non-extractive baited video observations to quantitatively document the fish assemblages within the continental shelf area (a multiple use zone, IUCN VI) of the Flinders Marine Reserve, within the Southeast marine region. We identified distinct demersal fish assemblages, quantified assemblage relationships with environmental gradients (primarily depth and habitat type), and described their spatial distribution across a variety of reef and sediment habitats. Baited videos recorded a range of species from multiple trophic levels, including species of commercial and recreational interest. The majority of species, whilst found commonly along the southern or south-eastern coasts of Australia, are endemic to Australia, highlighting the global significance of this region. Species richness was greater on habitats containing some reef and declined with increasing depth. The trophic breath of species in assemblages was also greater in shallow waters. We discuss the utility of our approach for establishing inventories when little prior knowledge is available and how such an approach may inform future monitoring efforts within the CMR network.