Comparison of, and the effects of altered freshwater inflow on, fish assemblages of two contrasting South African estuaries: the cool-temperate Olifants and the warm-temperate Breede

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African Journal of Marine Science

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University of Cape Town

This study compares the fish assemblages of the permanently open cool-temperate Olifants and warm-temperate Breede estuaries on the west and south coasts of South Africa respectively, and their responses to altered freshwater flows. Both estuaries have experienced a >35% reduction in mean annual runoff (MAR) from a historical reference condition to the present day with a >60% reduction possible under future flow scenarios. With the exception of species that have both marine and estuarine breeding populations, the Olifants Estuary fish assemblage has experienced an overall 20% decrease in abundance from reference (pristine state) to the present day and will gradually decline to 55% of reference with a predicted future 60% reduction in MAR. Consequently, future reductions in flow are likely to result in the Olifants Estuary progressing towards a low biomass, low diversity, marine-dominated system. In contrast, reduced freshwater flows in the Breede Estuary are likely to experience an overall reduction in the abundance of species that breed only in estuaries, and in freshwater and catadromous species. Collectively, entirely estuarine-dependent fish will increase in abundance, but considered individually some important exploited species such as Argyrosomus japonicus and Pomadasys commersonnii will collapse to 50% of historical numbers once there has been a 64% reduction in MAR. Overall, fish abundance in the estuary has increased by 6% from reference to the present day and is likely to increase to 115% of reference with future reductions in flow. Some species with a preference for fresh and brackish water will be all but lost from the system, but overall diversity is likely to increase with the range expansion of warm-temperate and subtropical marine species westward. In all, the fish assemblage of the Breede Estuary will experience a gradual change from a relatively high-diversity, low-abundance, freshwater rich system under historical flow conditions to a high diversity, high-abundance, marine-dominated system with future reductions in flow.