The dynamics of microphytobenthos in the Mdloti and Mhlanga estuaries, Kwazulu-Natal.
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Microphytobenthos (MPB) generally dominates total autotrophic biomass in temporarily open/closed estuaries (TOCEs) of South Africa. A comparative study of MPB biomass was undertaken in two KwaZulu-Natal TOCEs, the Mdloti and the Mhlanga. Both estuaries receive different volumes of treated sewage waters. The Mdloti receives 8 ML.d-1, while the Mhlanga receives 20 ML.d-1, resulting in a capping flow of 0.092 and 0.23 m3.s-1, respectively. Through these effluents, eutrophication is enhanced and periods of mouth opening are also increased and prolonged, particularly at the Mhlanga. The aim of this study was to investigate fluctuations in MPB biomass in the Mdloti and the Mhlanga systems, with emphasis on freshwater flow and the alternation of closed and open phases. Sediment samples for MPB biomass were collected on a monthly basis, between March 2002 and March 2003, in the lower (mouth), middle, and upper (head) reaches of the two estuaries. MPB biomass ranged from 1.33 to 391 mg chI a m-2 and from 1.7 to 313 mg chI a m-2 in the Mdloti and the Mhlanga, respectively. A I-way ANOVA revealed no significant differences in MPB chI a concentrations between the two estuaries for the entire data set (Fl, 76 =1.48, P > 0.05). At the Mdloti, MPB biomass varied considerably, with values ranging from 1.33 to 131 mg chI a m-2 during the open phase, and from 18 to 391 mg chI a m-2 during the closed phase. A Mann-Whitney U test confirmed the high significance of these differences between open and closed phases (U= 29, P < 0.001). At the Mhlanga, MPB biomass ranged from 7.0 to 313 mg chI a m-2 during the open phase, and from 1.7 to 267 mg chI a m-2 during the closed phase. Unlike what was observed at the Mdloti, the higher MPB values at the Mhlanga were not always associated with the closed mouth state. In relation to key physico-chemical and biological factors, grazing pressure exerted by the zooplankton community appeared to have played a major role in controlling MPB biomass. Zooplankton biomass was consistently and positively correlated to MPB biomass throughout the study period both at the Mdloti (r = 0040, P < 0.001) and at the Mhlanga (r = 0.33, p < 0.05). Unlike what was shown in previous studies, light attenuation was not significantly correlated with MPB biomass during the period ofthe study, either at the Mdloti or the Mhlanga. These results show that the opening and closing of the mouth play a key role on the MPB biomass of both estuaries. The Mdloti seems to function as a typical TOCE, with prolonged open and closed phases. The Mhlanga, on the other hand, lacks a prolonged closed phase. This, in turn, affects its entire trophic structure and functioning.