, Volume 430, Issue 1-3, pp 149-183

Hydrobiology of the Cochin backwater system – a review

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On the south west coast of India, there is an extensive

estuarine system of backwaters, of which Vembanad Lake is the largest. The backwaters of Kerala support as much biological productivity and diversity as tropical rain forests. They are responsible for the rich fisheries potential of Kerala. Cochin backwaters situated at the tip of the northern Vembanad lake is a tropical positive estuarine system extending between 9° 40′ and 10° 12′N and 76° 10' and 76° 30′ E with its northern boundary at Azheekode and southern boundary at Thannirmukham bund. The lake has a length of 80 km and the width varies between 500 and 4000 m. A channel, about 450 m wide at Cochin gut and another at Azheekode, make permanent connections with the Arabian Sea. The depth of the estuary varies considerably. While the shipping channels are maintained at a depth of 10–13 m, the major portion of the estuary has a depth range of 2–7 m. Water from two major rivers viz., Periyar and Muvattupuzha drain into this estuary. During south west monsoon, the estuary is virtually converted into a freshwater basin even in areas around barmouth where salt water penetration occurs below 5 m depth only. The major hydrological variable in the Cochin backwaters is salinity, similar to the situations encountered in estuaries with a gradual declension of salinity from 30 at the entrance of the estuary to 0.2 at the point of entry of the rivers. Salinity gradient in the Cochin backwaters supports diverse species of flora and fauna depending on their capacity to tolerate oligohaline, mesohaline or marine conditions. Low lying swamps and tidal creeks, dominated by sparse patches of mangroves with their nutrient rich physical environment, support larvae and juveniles of many economically important species. Backwaters also act as nursery grounds of commercially important prawns and fishes. The fields around the backwater are suitable for aquaculture. These areas support traditional, seasonal and perennial prawn fishery. The changes in the hydrology controlled by the seasons play an important role in regulating the migrant fauna of the estuary. The Cochin backwater supports a well established endemic fauna. The nutrients and pollutants introduced into the estuary control to a great extent the distribution and abundance of less tolerant species in ecologically sensitive areas in the backwaters. Cochin backwaters, widely regarded as one of the polluted estuaries in India, receive contaminated freshwater inputs and discharges of effluents and partially treated sewage from many points throughout its tidally mixed zone. Recently, changes brought about in the estuary like reclamation and consequent shrinkage of the backwaters and the discharge of pollutants have made an adverse impact on the potential of aquatic ecosystems that used to support high levels of bioproductivity and biodiversity. The construction of Thannirmukham bund and Thottapally spillway to prevent salt water penetration into the paddy fields during pre-monsoon has led to serious ecological problems by interrupting the natural ebb and flow of tides. The hydrography, floral and faunal composition – its spatial and temporal variation plus assessments of the impact of the anthropogenic activities are presented in this review. An attempt to critically evaluate the status of the estuary from the biological and pollutional stand point is also done.