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Spatial and temporal variability in recruitment of intertidal mussels around the coast of southern Africa

Jean M. Harris
George M. Branch
Bridget L. Elliott
Bronwen Currie
Arthur H. Dye
Christopher D. McQuaid
Bruce J. Tomalin
Claudio Velasquez


Intensity of intertidal mussel recruitment was compared across a range of different spatial and temporal scales around the coast of southern Africa between June 1995 and October 1996. Comparison of the east and west coasts revealed significantly higher recruit densities on the west coast, corresponding to larger adult densities. This difference between the two coasts reflects biogeographic disparities in mussel species composition, growth rates and spawning intensities, oceanographic conditions and productivity. Significant spatial variations in recruitment were recorded between regions 100–1000 km apart and between localities 1–25 km apart. Results suggest that the influence of dispersal processes on recruitment patterns acts at a relatively small scale, and may affect the distribution and abundance of adults among shores only a few kilometres apart. The high variability in recruitment intensities at a scale of metres indicates that larva! supply to the shore may be locally patchy, or that settlement preferences of recruits may be sensitive to subtle small-scale differences in adult density within mussel clumps. Small-scale differences in post-settlement mortality (e.g. owing to patchy predation pressure) may also play a role. This small-scale variability in recruitment is likely to reinforce the mosaic distribution of mussels evident on many of the shores. Significant temporal variability in recruit density was recorded, both between 3-monthly sampling intervals and interannually. Seasonal differences were absent for the north-west regions, whereas asynchronous seasonal patterns were displayed in the other regions. Results suggest that temporal cycles of recruitment are irregular and episodic, which may have important consequences for the dynamics of adults. Significant positive correlations were obtained between maximal recruitment and adult abundance, measured by density, or total number of adults on the shore (stock). This could be explained by the density-dependent role of adult conspecifics in providing suitable settlement habitat, or supply-side recruit limitation. These results have important implications for the management of exploited populations of mussels around the coast of southern Africa. Exploitation may influence recruitment success via at least two processes: reduction of larval supply by depletion of adult stock, and alteration of habitat suitable for settlement. Thus, overexploitation will compromise recruitment, which is itself the only mechanism of recovery. The west-coast mussel populations are likely to be more resilient to exploitation as recruitment is more predictable over time, stocks are larger and recruitment intensities high. This brings into question the present regulations for mussel harvesting because, paradoxically, more lenient regulations are applied on the east coast, where stocks and recruitment are low, than on the west coast, where biomass, recruitment and potential for recovery are high.