Modelling retention and dispersion mechanisms of bluefin tuna eggs and larvae in the northwest Mediterranean Sea

Knowledge of early life history of most fish species in the Mediterranean Sea is sparse and processes affecting their recruitment are poorly understood. This is particularly true for bluefin tuna, Thunnus thynnus, even though this species is one of the world's most valued fish species. Here we develop, apply and validate an individually based coupled biological-physical oceanographic model of fish early life history in the Mediterranean Sea. We first validate the general structure of the coupled model with a 12-day Lagrangian drift study of anchovy (Engraulis encrasicolus) larvae in the Catalan Sea. The model reproduced the drift and growth of anchovy larvae as they drifted along the Catalan coast and yielded similar patterns as those observed in the field. We then applied the model to investigate transport and retention processes affecting the spatial distribution of bluefin tuna eggs and larvae during 1999-2003, and we compared modelled distributions with available field data collected in 2001 and 2003. Modelled and field distributions generally coincided and were patchy at mesoscales (10s-100s km); larvae were most abundant in eddies and along frontal zones. We also identified probable locations of spawning bluefin tuna using hydrographic backtracking procedures; these locations were situated in a major salinity frontal zone and coincided with distributions of an electronically tagged bluefin tuna and commercial bluefin tuna fishing vessels. Moreover, we hypothesized that mesoscale processes are responsible for the aggregation and dispersion mechanisms in the area and showed that these processes were significantly correlated to atmospheric forcing processes over the NW Mediterranean Sea. Interannual variations in average summer air temperature can reduce the intensity of ocean mesoscale processes in the Balearic area and thus potentially affect bluefin tuna larvae. These modelling approaches can increase understanding of bluefin tuna recruitment processes and eventually contribute to management of bluefin tuna fisheries. (C) 2010 Elsevier Ltd. All rights reserved.