The fishes of three small Natal estuaries, the Mhlanga. Damba and Zotsha were sampled over a period of two years. A total of 68 fish taxa representing 24 families, 39 genera and 55 species were captured during this study. Forty seven fish taxa were recorded in the Mhlanga estuary of which Gilchristella aestuaria, Oreochromis mossambicus, Valamugil cunnesius, Valamugil sp. and juvenile mugilids numerically dominated. In terms of biomass, O. mossambicus, V. cunnesius, Liza alata, Myxus capensis and Mugil cephalus dominated the ichthyofauna of the Mhlanga system. In the Damba estuary, 24 fish taxa were recorded, the most abundant being Glossogobius callidus, M. capensis and O. mossambicus. M. capensis, M. cephalus, O. mossambicus and G. callidus dominated the fish biomass captured in the Damba system. A total of 56 fish taxa were recorded in the Zotsha estuary during this study, with the ichthyofauna numerically dominated by juvenile mugilids, G. aestuaria, O. mossambicus, Rhabdosargus holubi, Terapon jarbua, Ambassis productus and G. callidus. The species which dominated the fish biomass in the Zotsha system were O. mossambicus L. alata, Valamugil robustus, V. buchanani, M. capensis, M. cephalus and V. cunnesius.
Classifying the species according to whether they were resident estuarine, freshwater, estuarine-dependent marine or marine species revealed that the first three groups were all well represented in the systems. Oreochromis mossambicus was the dominant freshwater species in all three estuaries. Gilchristella aestuaria and Glossogobius callidus were the principal estuarine species in the Mhlanga and the Damba respectively, with G. aestuaria, A. productus and G. callidus being the dominant estuarine species captured in the Zotsha. The principal estuarine-dependent marine fishes captured in the Mhlanga were V. cunnesius, Valamugil sp., juvenile mugilids, M. capensis, M. cephalus and L. alata. In the Damba, M. capensis and M. cephalus were the dominant estuarine-dependent marine species and in the Zotsha juvenile mugilids, R. holubi, T. jarbua, M. capensis, V. cunnesius, V. robustus, M. cephalus, L. alata and V. buchanani were the principal estuarine-dependent marine species.
The results of this study indicate that the estuaries are dominated at different periods by different assemblages of fishes. This is linked to the spawning and migration patterns of the various species as well as the hydrological regime of each estuary. During the winter these systems are normally closed with relatively deep waters and high food resource and habitat availability. Freshwater and estuarine species mainly inhabit the upper reaches of the systems while estuarine-dependent marine species, which dominate the fish community, mainly occupy the middle and lower reaches. When these estuaries open with the onset of the spring/summer rains, adult and sub-adult estuarine-dependent marine species emigrate to the marine environment and juveniles begin recruiting into the systems. Spring is also the peak breeding period of resident estuarine and freshwater species, resulting in an increase in the contribution of these fishes to the overall ichthyofauna during this period. When closed estuaries open the water level falls and this results in the fishes concentrating in the lower reaches of the system where moderate water depths are present, thus further contributing to an increase in the proportion of freshwater and estuarine species in this region.
The breaching of closed estuaries also results in a reduction in food resources and habitat availability. Competition and possible increased vulnerability to avian predation (due to the shallow nature of the systems), may contribute to a decrease in the proportion of estuarine and freshwater species in summer. The prolonged recruitment of O+ juveniles of estuarine -dependent marine species results in an increase in the proportion of these fishes present in the estuaries during summer. In autumn, the systems normally close, water levels rise and available food resources and habitat increase. This allows the redistribution of freshwater and estuarine species upstream, leaving estuarine-dependent marine species to dominate the middle and lower reaches.
Although temporarily open/closed estuaries along the Natal coast may not be as diverse as permanently open estuaries in terms of their ichthyofauna, their importance must not be underestimated, since by providing a series of sheltered habitats along the coast they may contribute significantly to the viability of estuarine-dependent marine fish stocks.