Spatial Modelling of Coastal Fish – Methods and Applications

Abstract: Environmental factors influence species and habitats on multiple scales creating a mosaic of distribution patterns. Studying factors shaping these patterns are central to our understanding of population dynamics and ultimately ecosystem functioning. Information on the distribution of resources and conservation values are also highly needed in marine management as coastal areas are increasingly influenced by human activities. In this thesis, large-scale field data is used to explore how strong environmental gradients found on multiple scales in the coastal areas of the Baltic Sea influence fish habitats. The underlying concepts are based in the field of species distribution modelling, whereby habitat maps can be produced using environmental layers in a geographic information system. Distribution modelling is further used to address both ecological and applied questions by examining effects of habitat limitation on fish population sizes and to evaluate management actions aimed at habitat conservation. I show that specific habitat requirements for fish species of both freshwater and marine origin can be described using environmental variables and that species-environment relationships can be used to predict the distribution of early life-stages of fish in the Baltic Sea archipelagos. Further, predicted habitat availability of a specific life-stage was directly related to adult population size of Eurasian perch Perca fluviatilis, signifying that the abundance of large predatory fish can be limited by specific recruitment habitats. Lastly, by predicting the distribution of an assemblage of coastal fish species and their associated habitats, an assessment of a network of marine protected areas was performed. Results revealed large gaps in the current network and identified areas suitable for future protection. By demonstrating how current habitat protection can be improved by including critical habitats for coastal fish population sizes this thesis points to the benefits of integrating nature conservation and fisheries management. Based on these findings I conclude that species distribution modelling provides a suitable analytical framework for assessing the habitat requirements of organisms. An increased understanding of habitat-population relationships and an ability to accurately map ecologically important features will be of great value for an ecosystem-based marine management. ­