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Space and Time Segregation of Ocean Sunfish Species in the Eastern North Pacific

November 24, 2020

We investigated space and time dynamics in the populations of the common mola, sharptail mola, and slender mola in the eastern North Pacific. In addition, we identify potential effects of fishing gear type on molid catch probability.

Ocean sunfishes or molas (Molidae) are difficult to study as a result of their extensive movements and low densities in remote waters.

In particular, little is known of the environmental niche separation and differences in the reproductive or movement ecology of molids in sympatry.

We investigated spatiotemporal dynamics in the distribution of the common mola (Mola mola), sharptail mola (Masturus lanceolatus), and slender mola (Ranzania laevis) in the eastern North Pacific.

We used observer data from a commercial fishery consisting of 85,000+ longline sets spanning 24 years, > 50 in longitude, and > 45 in latitude. Satellite altimetry analysis, species distribution modeling, and multivariate ordination revealed thermal niche separation, spatiotemporal segregation, and distinct community associations of the three molid species.

Our quantitative findings suggest that the common mola is a more temperate species while slender and sharptail mola are more (sub)tropical species, and that slender (and possibly also sharptail) mola undergo spawning migrations to the region around the Hawaiian Islands.

In addition, we identify potential effects of fishing gear type on molid catch probability, an increasing trend in catch probability of a vulnerable species perhaps related to a shift in the distribution of fishing effort, and the possible presence in the fishery of a fourth molid species being misidentified as a congener, all of which are important conservation considerations for these enigmatic fishes. 

Arostegui MC, Braun CD, Woodworth-Jefcoats PA, Kobayashi DR, Gaube P. 2020. Spatiotemporal segregation of ocean sunfish species (Molidae) in the eastern North Pacific. Marine Ecology Progress Series. 654:109-25. https://doi.org/10.3354/meps13514.

Last updated by Pacific Islands Fisheries Science Center on 12/08/2021