The artificial habitats attract a broad diversity of wild fish of the Reef fish community, regular resident species, schools of small pelagics, larger preditors, rare transient species, and occasional invertebrate species.
Reef fish communities vary widely with environmental factors, such as water depth, habitat complexity and latitude. In the mid-shelf depths off central Georgia, reef fish diversity is not as great as it is off southern Florida or in the Caribbean, but it is greater than the diversity in similar habitats North of Cape Hatteras. Sand bottom habitats usually do not have a great diversity of fish species, probably due to the lack of shelter (i.e. places to escape predation), except in the sand itself. A natural rocky outcrop, which is the structural foundation for most reef habitats and their associated fish populations, may have many different sized cracks, holes, crevices and undercut rock formations. These different spaces may be very important to the survival of juvenile fish of most reef species. A small fish needs a small space to keep from being eaten. As the same fish grows, it will need an slightly larger space or it will be eaten at that stage, and so on until the fish is big enough to be to fast or to big for larger fish to eat. The diversity of spaces on natural reef may contribute to the diversity of the fish fauna found there. Also, contributing to the diversity is the attraction of fish that eat the many species of invertebrates, which may also seek shelter in the many sized spaces or attach to the hard surfaces.
Most of the present reef fish communities are significantly different than they would be without the intensive human harvesting, which has greatly reduced the natural proportions of top level predators at habitats throughout the region. Many of the predatory fish species, which feed on the other fish species rather than on the invertebrates, are popular fish for human consumption. Therefore, these species were and are highly sought after in both commercial and recreational harvests. Many species of the snappers and groupers are so popular both commercially and recreationally, that fishing for them on the continental shelf of this region is regulated by the South Atlantic Fishery Management Council. The Council reports that a large percentage of the species are considered overfished because fishing removes some fish species from the ocean faster that the fish population can replace them. How can this happen? Reef fish are very vulnerable to hook and line fishing because they are always hungry. Also, they are, most often, closely associated with reef structure, which is easily located with modern depth sounders and Global Positioning Systems. Also, many of the snapper and grouper species live a long time and grow relatively slowly, so that catching a single fish that may be 10-25 years old will require 10-25 years for another fish to grow to the same size to replace the one that was caught. An additional problem is that many species reproduce late in life at 4-10 years of age with larger/older female fish producing significantly more eggs than younger fish. In this situation, catching large fish may greatly reduce the population's ability to replace itself.
So, what species are left in our reef fish communities? Often the predominant species visible on a popular fishing or nearshore reef are those that do not respond to the baits commonly used by hook and line fishers. Look at the images from the Fish Watch cameras and see for yourself! Keep a daily record of fish species and observe the seasonal changes in the reef fish community.