A system-level modelling perspective of the KwaZulu-Natal Bight ecosystem, eastern South Africa

  • UM Scharler
  • RC van Ballegooyen
  • MJ Ayers
Keywords: Agulhas Current, ecosystem connectivity, freshwater inflow, systems analysis, Thukela River


The KwaZulu-Natal Bight comprises the only sizeable shelf region on the eastern coast of South Africa, and is influenced by both the Agulhas Current on its seaward side and rivers and estuaries on its landward side. Established knowledge of the effect of the Agulhas Current includes the influence on nutrient concentrations in the bight of a semi-permanent upwelling cell at its northern border (St Lucia) and, to a much lesser extent, of a semi-permanent eddy feature at its southern extremity. Current modelling efforts, however, point to a very important role of land-derived nutrients, which supplement the productivity of food webs of the bight. This connectivity of the bight to its adjacent ecosystems has various implications. First, its productivity has traditionally been viewed via phytoplankton growth, whereas ecosystem modelling efforts point to a very high reliance on imported detritus (mainly land-derived) in order to sustain especially the rich benthic food web. The benthos in the bight dominates the food web, and is in marked contrast to the upwelling system of the west coast of South Africa (Atlantic Ocean) where water-column productivity dominates. Second, the importance of the connectivity of the Thukela Bank prawn-trawling ground to estuarine nursery areas, which has been modelled quantitatively, highlights the significance of this particular ecosystem connectivity for fisheries and also for the Thukela Bank food web. Heterogeneity across the bight is apparent for nutrient turnover rates (carbon, nitrogen, phosphorus), CNP content and stoichiometry, whereas nitrogen is a limiting nutrient across the entire bight. The food web near the Thukela River is richer in nutrient content and more active (higher turnover rates) compared to the northern and southern parts of the bight. This environmental heterogeneity was also apparent from the CNP content and stoichiometry of the various species and species groups in the bight. Requirements to take the hydrodynamic, biogeochemical and first ecosystem modelling efforts towards a meaningful predictive capability are discussed. The importance of adopting a system-level view of the bight and its connected systems for realistic exploration of global change scenarios is highlighted.

Keywords: Agulhas Current, ecosystem connectivity, freshwater inflow, systems analysis, Thukela River

Journal Identifiers

eISSN: 1814-2338
print ISSN: 1814-232X