Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 17, Issue 4, pp 565–580 | Cite as

Fish communities in temporarily open/closed estuaries from the warm- and cool-temperate regions of South Africa: A review

  • Nicola C. James
  • Paul D. Cowley
  • Alan K. Whitfield
  • Steve J. Lamberth
Research Paper


The majority of estuaries along the coastline of southern Africa are termed temporarily open/closed estuaries (TOCEs) and are closed off from the sea for varying periods by a sandbar which forms at the mouth. It is therefore important to understand the processes occurring within TOCEs and their importance to fishes in order to make sound management recommendations. Estuaries along the coast of South Africa and their associated fish assemblages are biogeographically distinct and occur in either a subtropical, warm-temperate or cool-temperate zone. There are 125 TOCEs found within the cool-temperate and warm-temperate zones. Most fish species found in TOCEs are the juveniles of marine taxa that breed at sea. Permanently open estuaries generally have a higher diversity of species than TOCEs, but TOCEs still provide important nursery areas for many marine species and numerically often have a higher proportion of estuarine resident species. Important taxa in terms of abundance and biomass in warm-temperate TOCEs include the sparids Rhabdosargus holubi and Lithognathus lithognathus, several mugilid species, estuarine residents (particularly Gilchristella aestuaria and Atherina breviceps) and the freshwater cichlid Oreochromis mossambicus. The diversity of fishes in cool-temperate TOCEs is low when compared with warm-temperate systems and Liza richardsonii tends to dominate catches by number and mass in most systems. Several species recorded in TOCEs show clear longitudinal distribution trends. For example Atherina breviceps is generally more abundant in the lower reaches of estuaries. Mouth state, particularly the frequency, timing and duration of mouth opening plays a key role in determining species richness, composition, diversity and abundance in TOCEs. Mouth state is directly linked to freshwater input. Reduced river inflow leads to prolonged mouth closure and shorter open phases, which inhibits immigration and emigration of marine fish species between estuaries and the sea. Understanding of the effects of various processes occurring within these systems, particularly variation in freshwater input, on the biota of these important systems facilitates the development of informed management recommendations.


Temporarily open/closed estuaries Fish communities Mouth opening Flow variation South Africa 



The authors are grateful to the Water Research Commission for funding this research and to the National Research Foundation and the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity for providing a post-graduate bursary to the senior author.


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Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media, Inc. 2007

Authors and Affiliations

  • Nicola C. James
    • 1
    • 2
  • Paul D. Cowley
    • 2
  • Alan K. Whitfield
    • 2
  • Steve J. Lamberth
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries ScienceRhodes UniversityGrahamstownSouth Africa
  2. 2.South African Institute for Aquatic BiodiversityGrahamstownSouth Africa
  3. 3.Marine and Coastal ManagementCape TownSouth Africa

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