Reviews in Fish Biology and Fisheries

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 151–186 | Cite as

Ichthyofaunal assemblages in estuaries: A South African case study

  • Alan K. Whitfield


This review places the life-history styles of fishes associated with South African estuaries in a global context and presents a classification system incorporating all the major life-history categories for estuary-associated fish species around the world. In addition, it documents the early life histories of the major fish groups in South African estuaries, with particular emphasis on the differing modes of estuarine utilization by marine, estuarine and freshwater taxa.

This review details factors influencing the ichthyofaunal community structure in South African estuaries. The availability of fish for recruitment into an estuary depends primarily upon the distributional range of euryhaline marine and estuarine species, with tropical and temperate taxa showing marked abundance trends. Within a particular biogeographic region, however, estuarine type and prevailing salinity regime have a major influence on the detailed ichthyofaunal structure that develops. There is an increasing preponderance of marine fish taxa when moving from a freshwater-dominated towards a seawater-dominated type of system, and a decline in species diversity between subtropical estuaries in the north-east and cool temperate systems in the south-west. Similar declines in fish species diversity between tropical and temperate estuaries in other parts of the world are highlighted.

Fish assemblages in estuaries adjust constantly in response to changing seasons, salinities, turbidities, etc. Despite persistent fluctuations in both the biotic and abiotic environment, the basic ichthyofaunal structure appears to have an underlying stability and to be predictable in terms of the response of individual species to specific conditions. This stability seems to be governed by factors such as the dominance of eurytopic taxa within estuarine assemblages and the robust nature of food webs within these systems. The predictability arises from factors such as the seasonality associated with estuarine spawning cycles and juvenile fish recruitment patterns. These patterns, together with a well-documented resilience to a wide range of physico-chemical and biotic perturbations, appear to be an underlying feature of fish assemblages in estuaries around the world.

In contrast to marine fish species, estuary-associated taxa have received little conservation attention. Apart from the designation of protected areas, the main direct means of conserving estuary-associated fish stocks include habitat conservation and controls over fishing methods, effort, efficiency and seasonality. Of these, the conservation of fish habitats, the most important, because healthy aquatic environments invariably support healthy fish populations. The use of estuarine sanctuaries for fish conservation is briefly reviewed, as well as the legislation governing the USA National Estuarine Research Reserve System (NERRS) and the Australian Marine and Estuarine Protected Area (MEPA) system. It is concluded that South Africa requires an expansion of the existing Estuarine Protected Area (EPA) network, as well as the upgrading of selected 'estuarine reserves' where fishing is permitted, into 'estuarine sanctuaries' where no exploitation of biological resources is allowed.

aquatic conservation estuaries fish assemblages life histories South Africa zoogeography 


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Copyright information

© Kluwer Academic Publishers 1999

Authors and Affiliations

  • Alan K. Whitfield
    • 1
  1. 1.J.L.B. Smith Institute of IchthyologyGrahamstownSouth Africa

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