Characterizing density patterns of fish and crustaceans across estuarine habitat types can provide useful information regarding their relative value. The oyster reef complex within Sabine Lake Estuary is the largest known in the United States with no record of commercial harvest, and it presents a unique opportunity to understand the habitat value of an unfished reef system in comparison with adjacent estuarine habitats. High abundances of relatively large oysters with complex formations were observed throughout the 2-y study period. Average densities of fish and crustaceans were 6 times greater at the marsh edge than the nonvegetated shallow habitats, and 40 times greater than both the oyster reef and nonvegetated deep habitats. Low faunal densities observed in the oyster reef habitat may be the result of spatial configuration and connectivity to surrounding habitats, collection limitation resulting from its large vertical relief (>1 m) and complex 3-dimensional structure, or habitat selection resulting from water depth. Because the majority of crustaceans and resident and transient fish were observed within the marsh edge and nonvegetated shallow habitats, it is difficult to determine whether oyster reefs within Sabine Lake Estuary provide essential habitats for these species. Although low densities of organisms were observed in the oyster reef habitat, multivariate analysis indicates that the unfished reef supports a unique community of fish and crustaceans. Results provide a valuable baseline for future conservation, restoration, and management actions as we seek to understand more completely and to protect important estuarine habitat types.
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Vol. 33 • No. 1