The impact of river flooding and high flow on the demersal fish assemblages of the freshwater-dominated Great Fish Estuary, South Africa
Freshwater inflow has a strong impact on the biological, chemical and physical characteristics of estuaries, which in turn affect the distribution and abundance of estuarine organisms. Increased climatic variability associated with climate change is predicated to modify precipitation patterns, which will likely intensify floods in estuaries. The demersal fish assemblage of the freshwater-dominated Great Fish Estuary, South Africa, was sampled using beam trawls, monthly, from December 2013 to November 2014. The first six months of the study were characterised by river flooding and high flow, with estuarine conditions found only in the mouth region; this was followed by six months of intermediate flow, with estuarine conditions recorded up to 10 km from the mouth. River flooding and subsequent reduced salinity resulted in a decrease in species richness and abundances of fishes in the estuary, with only two estuarine species (Glossogobius callidus and Psammogobius knysnaensis) and one marine migrant (Solea turbynei) recorded following river flooding (201 m3 s–1), in January 2014. The greatest species richness and abundances among both marine and estuarine fishes were recorded during intermediate flow conditions. We conclude that although freshwater inflow into estuaries is important for the nursery function of these systems, flooding—especially in freshwater-dominated estuaries—may cause a temporary decline in the abundance of most marine and estuarine fish species, including important bentho-pelagic marine migrant fishery species, such as Argyrosomus japonicus and Pomadasys commersonnii.
Keywords: abundance, climate change, demersal fish, freshwater inflow, marine migrant species, salinity, shoeless beam trawl, species richness