Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 27, Issue 1, pp 75–110 | Cite as

The role of seagrass meadows, mangrove forests, salt marshes and reed beds as nursery areas and food sources for fishes in estuaries

  • Alan K. Whitfield


Each year millions of larval and 0+ juvenile fishes are recruited into estuarine fish populations around the world. For several decades the roles of littoral aquatic and emergent macrophyte habitats as nursery areas for many of these species have been studied and debated at length. This review attempts to collate the published literature and provide a synopsis of the varying, and sometimes conflicting, views on this topic. A large number of studies have shown that a range of species and an abundance of juvenile fishes are associated with littoral macrophytes in estuaries, some of which are found almost exclusively within particular plant habitats. Other studies have shown the movement of certain juvenile fishes from one type of littoral plant habitat to another as they grow and develop new feeding strategies and dietary requirements. Overall, it would appear that seagrass beds and mangrove forests are particularly favoured by fishes as nursery areas in both estuaries and the nearshore marine environment, and that the loss of these habitats leads to a decline in juvenile fish diversity and abundance. Salt marshes and reed beds generally have a lower diversity of fishes than seagrass and mangrove habitats, possibly due to the more temperate location of salt marshes and the dense structure of some reed beds. Stable isotope studies in particular are providing increasing evidence that carbon assimilated by juvenile fishes in mangrove, marsh and reed habitats is not primarily derived from these macrophytes but comprises a mixture of these sources and a diverse range of macro- and microalgae, particularly epiphytic, epipsammic, epipelic and epilithic diatoms and algae found in these areas. The closest trophic link between the macrophyte food chain and associated fishes occurs in seagrass habitats where a significant portion of the overall macrophyte leaf biomass often consists of epiphytic algae and diatoms. Structurally, mangrove forests, salt marshes and reed beds provide more substantial and complex habitats for juvenile fish refuge, but some of these habitats are constrained with regard to nursery provision by being fully exposed at low tide. Under such circumstances the small fish are sometimes forced into creeks and channels where larger piscivorous fishes are often present. Overall, in terms of a broad ranking of the four habitats as potential fish nursery areas, seagrass meadows are ranked first, followed by mangrove forests, salt marshes and then reed beds. This ranking does not imply that the lower ranked habitats are unimportant, since these plants perform a myriad of ecosystem services that are not related to the provision of fish nursery areas, e.g. bank stabilization. It is also emphasized that the protection of specific plant species should not be encouraged because it is important to have an ecosystem approach to conservation so that the diversity of habitats and their connectivity for fishes is maintained.


Juvenile fish Predator avoidance Aquatic macrophytes Food sources Stable isotopes 



I thank Elaine Heemstra for the use of fish illustrations shown in Fig. 1 and the National Research Foundation (NRF) for financial support. I am also grateful to Janine Adams and two referees for their useful comments regarding earlier versions of this manuscript.


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Copyright information

© Springer International Publishing Switzerland 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB)GrahamstownSouth Africa

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