Species distribution monitoring and biomass assessment are crucial for fishery management and resource conservation. However, traditional methods such as motor trawling are costly and less effective than the novel environmental DNA (eDNA) approach. This study employs eDNA approach to investigate horizontal and vertical distributions of small yellow croaker (Larimichthys polyactis), an economically important species, in the East China Sea. The analysis of 171 eDNA samples collected from 44 stations using the species-specific primers and Taqman probe suggests a presence of small yellow croaker at 28 sampling layers in 44 stations. Significant differences in croaker eDNA concentrations were revealed among sampling stations and layers, consistent with previous findings through motor-trawl capture offshore and nearshore ichthyoplakton surveys, indicating small yellow croaker exhibits strong regional distribution and layer preference. In addition, we found a high eDNA concentration of small yellow croaker in the surface waters beyond the motor-trawl prohibition line, which confirms spawning grounds have been expanded from nearshore to offshore areas. Such expansion of spawning grounds could be a response by small yellow croaker to stressors such as overfishing, climate change, and nearshore environment contamination. To identify environmental variables potentially associated with small yellow croaker presence and absence, we conducted a correlation analysis between eDNA concentration and environmental variables, and the results provide a guideline for further investigation of fishery resources in the future. In conclusion, this study demonstrates the power of the eDNA approach in monitoring small yellow croaker at extensive geographic scales. The developed protocols and the findings are expected to assist in long-term monitoring and protection programs and benefit sustainable fishery in small yellow croaker.
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