Recovery dynamics of zooplankton following a mouth-breaching event in the temporarily-open Mdloti Estuary.
A high proportion of South Africa’s temporarily open/closed estuaries (TOCEs) occur along the coast of KwaZulu-Natal. Mouth breaching events have major impacts on the biological processes of an estuary, resulting in depletion of zooplankton via flushing and sediment scouring. Mouth closure, usually within weeks of a breaching event, initiates a new phase of stable physical conditions, leading to biological recovery. Therefore, the aim of this investigation was: (1) to monitor the recovery of zooplankton abundance and biomass following a breaching event in the Mdloti Estuary; (2) to compare the spatial and temporal patterns in zooplankton distribution in the lower (mouth), middle and upper reaches (head) of the Mdloti Estuary in terms of abundance and biomass just before, during and after a mouth breaching event; and (3) to determine the key environmental variables influencing zooplankton abundance and biomass during such a breaching event. The zooplankton community of the Mdloti Estuary was studied over a 3-month period (27 January to 26 April 2004). The estuary was artificially breached on 12 February 2004, due to a fish kill, and closed again naturally on 18 March 2004. Samples were collected twice a week in the lower, middle and upper reaches using a WP-2 net and an epibenthic sled. Upon breaching, 98% of zooplankton biomass was lost through sediment scouring and flushing. During the open phase, zooplankton biomass showed a temporary recovery, but due to continual sediment scouring and flushing, this was not sustained. One-way ANOVA revealed a significant difference in total zooplankton abundance and biomass between phases (d.f.2, 59 = 55.0; p < 0.001; d.f.2, 59 = 15.51; p < 0.001). ANCOVA revealed significant differences between zooplankton abundance and biomass (d.f.0.05;2,56=2.97, p = 0.05) at the different estuarine reaches (d.f.0.05;2,56=5.51, p < 0.01) . In both cases, the lower reaches recovered quicker than the middle and upper reaches. Thirty-five taxa were identified during the study, with only 10 contributing more than 1% of the total abundance or biomass. For the overall study, P. hessei was the dominant species, accounting for 42% of the total abundance and 58% of the total biomass. Keratella sp. 1 accounted for 17% and 11% of the total abundance and total biomass, respectively, while harpacticoid copepodites and Acartia natalensis contributed 11% and 10% to the total zooplankton abundance and 3% and 7% to the total zooplankton biomass, respectively. Pre-breaching levels of zooplankton were reached only 9 days after the closure of the mouth, during the recovery phase (mean 1.1 x 105 ± 6.5 x 104 SD ind.m3 and 2.4 x 102 ± 1.6 x 102 SD mg.m3). Zooplankton abundance and biomass reached a peak in the lower reaches after 19 days, in the upper reaches after 28 days and in the middle reaches after 35 days. The zooplankton biomass decreased slightly, but stabilised for the duration of the study. During the study the state of the mouth was primarily responsible for regulating the zooplankton abundance and biomass. However, the zooplankton in the different reaches did not recover in synchrony after mouth re-closure because abiotic factors and food availability were different in the three estuarine reaches.