Biodiversity patterns in False Bay: an assessment using underwater cameras

Doctoral Thesis


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Understanding how marine biodiversity is distributed, and what drives these patterns, relies on good descriptions of marine ecosystems. This information should inform the protection of biodiversity and guide its management. Relationships between marine landscapes and biodiversity therefore need to be described at scales that are useful to regional management. Simultaneous sampling of marine biodiversity and the seafloor is challenging, so baseline ecosystem descriptions are often mismatched in their abiotic and biotic components. Cameras can sample the seafloor and its associated biodiversity concurrently, with good coverage and at low cost. These are important considerations for sustainable monitoring to inform conservation management in resource-limited regions. Terrestrial landscape characterisations cannot simply be translated to the ocean because interpreting remote ocean terrain assessments in a manner relevant to ecological analysis is complicated by depth, circulation, light attenuation, and other oceanographic variables. The integration of some of these concepts into rapid marine biodiversity assessments therefore needs ground-truthing where they are applied in new regions, to advance sustainability in long-term marine monitoring. This thesis investigated the relationship between landscape composition and benthic marine biodiversity in False Bay, South Africa using novel methods that extended biodiversity sampling across more depths and habitats than any single, previous survey of the bay. This study's approach piloted sampling and interpreting the marine landscape and biodiversity over matching spatial and temporal scales. The coverage, repeatability and ecosystem-level scale applied to this study make it a useful basis to develop monitoring protocols that are appropriate to conservation management at relevant regional scales. New insights for the region include a) a new description of the seafloor using classifications that explain the variation in epibenthic megafauna and ichthyofauna communities, b) a quantitative account of the epibenthic megafauna on the eastern reefs where species diversity was highest, and c) the synthesis of seafloor descriptions with the epibenthic megafauna and ichthyofauna to describe nine regions of False Bay, relative to two previous descriptions of "grounds". Photographs and multibeam bathymetry characterised the seafloor on eight transects across the bay and were ground-truthed by grab samples repeated at representative sites. Two new classifications were applied to describe the seafloor. Horizontal seafloor heterogeneity was highest in the east, and reef was distributed along the eastern and western margins. The Collaborative and Automated Tools for Analysis of Marine Imagery (CATAMI) scheme captured accurate broad-scale descriptions of the physical landscape when applied to photographs. Grabs are still needed to provide fine-scale particle size data on soft sediments where most invertebrate diversity is likely infauna. However, CATAMI abstracts fine-scale sediment variation into simpler groupings more useful for rapid ecosystem assessment. Photographic sampling is repeatable, which is useful for long-term ecosystem monitoring. Photographs taken using a jump camera rig assessed the epibenthic megafauna across habitats and along depth gradients. Rényi diversity showed that species diversity increased in shallow waters up to 40 m, reaching a peak between 30 and 40 m, before decreasing with increasing depth. Species diversity was highest in the east, where seafloor heterogeneity was also highest. This result is interesting because eastern False Bay falls mostly outside the current marine protected area (MPA) network and has been relatively under-represented in previous surveys. The jump camera documents ecosystem-level biodiversity patterns and processes, and the random point count method in Coral Point Count (CPCe) is useful to assess community composition and cover on reefs. The relative abundance and distribution of ichthyofauna were assessed using baited remote underwater video systems (BRUVs). Fifty-seven fish species from 30 families were recorded between 4 and 84 m. Rényi diversity showed that species richness was similar for reef and sand overall, but the Shannon-Wiener diversity index (H') was significantly higher on reef sites than on sand sites (t = 1.972, p < 0.0001). Species richness for the whole bay was similar in winter and summer, which indicates that the same species are likely present year-round; however, the Shannon-Wiener diversity index was significantly higher in winter (t = 1.973, p < 0.013) and evenness was greater in winter at the level of the site. These findings highlight the difficulty in protecting sufficient sand habitat to encompass the patchy distribution of sand-associated species and highlight seasonal differences in optimal visibility for future camera monitoring surveys by conservation management. There are clear patterns in the marine biodiversity of False Bay, at various scales, that can be detected using novel methods for the region. The study's approach to classifying both the landscape and its associated biodiversity creates a framework for future ecosystem threat assessment that can be applied elsewhere, especially along the South African coastline.