Benthic-invertebrate diversity of Tucetona laticostata (Mollusca: Bivalvia) biogenic substrata in Hauraki Gulf
Marine ecosystems are increasingly being subject to human impact from diverse recreational and commercial activities, not necessarily restricted to those of a marine nature. This has significant implications for biodiversity. The large dog cockle, Tucetona laticostata, once occurred live in Rangitoto Channel, Hauraki Gulf, although this species no longer appears to occur there, most likely as a consequence of repeated dredging and channel excavation and continued siltation. Tucetona laticostata still occurs in a few isolated pockets of sea bed throughout Hauraki Gulf, particularly off Otata Island, part of the Noises complex of islands, where it resides partially buried in shell and rock gravels in shallow water (to 15 metres depth). The shells of T. laticostata collect in large post-mortem deposits in an area ramping from the sea bed off southwestern Otata Island. These mounds differ significantly in structural complexity from those of adjacent, extensively fragmented shell and rock gravels. Using the mounds of T. laticostata shell as a proxy for structural complexity, in order to appraise the effect of complexity on benthic-invertebrate diversity, the sea bed off southwestern Otata Island was sampled quarterly at two depths and in both T. laticostata shell mounds and adjacent extensively fragmented shell and rock gravels. These data were complemented with those from additional surveys around Otata Island, and off eastern Motutapu Island to determine the distribution and composition of benthic-invertebrate community assemblages throughout the region, and from concurrent surveys throughout the Waitemata Harbour and inner Hauraki Gulf to determine the current distribution of T. laticostata in this region. The number of benthic invertebrate species and individuals within T. laticostata habitat almost always was higher than that occurring within extensively fragmented shell- and rock gravel habitat, with densities to 142,385 individuals m-2 encountered. Temporal and spatial variations in benthic community structure also are reported for the two habitats, T. laticostata-based shells and extensively fragmented shell- and rock gravels. The numbers of species were higher amongst samples collected off the southwestern and eastern sides of Otata Island than elsewhere around this island, or of eastern Motutapu Island. Of the 351 species reported from all Otata and Motutapu Island samples combined, 73% of them occurred off southwestern Otata Island, 30% of which were found exclusively within T. laticostata shell habitat, and 10.5% within extensively fragmented shell and rock gravel habitat. The sea bed off southwestern Otata Island is regularly, seasonally dredged by recreational scallop fishers, in addition to being a popular small-vessel anchorage site. Both of these activities, dredging and anchorage, stand to reduce substratum complexity by fragmentation and dispersal of the valves of T. laticostata. Given the unique benthic invertebrates reported from T. laticostata shell deposits reported from southwestern Otata Island, any activity that damages the shells of this species, regardless of whether they are live or dead, is likely to result in loss of biodiversity. Admittedly, many of species identified as major contributors to differences in benthic invertebrate assemblages between T. laticostata shell-based habitats and those of extensively fragmented shell and rock gravels are not particularly charismatic or large, but each likely plays a role in local food webs and/or sediment and water column chemistry. It was not the intention of this research to determine the effects of anthropogenic disturbances like dredging or vessel anchorage on benthic-invertebrate communities off southwestern Otata Island. However, given the reported differences in species diversity within the structurally complex substratum provided by T. laticostata, conservation of biogenic reef-forming species like it might be a prudent, precautionary measure to take.