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Keywords:

  • environmental legislation;
  • estuarine conservation;
  • fish threats;
  • fisheries management

Estuary-dependent fish species are defined as those taxa whose populations would be adversely affected by the loss of estuarine habitats. Of the 155 species regularly recorded in South African estuaries, only 32 (21%) are completely dependent on these systems, but this figure increases to 103 species (66%) if partially dependent taxa are included in the analysis. The conservation of fishes in estuaries on the subcontinent is threatened by a number of factors, including habitat degradation, disruption of essential ecological processes, hydrological manipulations, environmental pollution, overexploitation due to fishing activities and, more recently, climate change and the effects of introduced aquatic animals. Although major threats to fishes are usually linked to environmental degradation, there is increasing evidence that the stocks of certain fish species are overexploited or collapsed. Fish conservation and fisheries management does not depend on the implementation of a single action, but rather the co-ordination of a detailed plan, often in a multidisciplinary context. Some examples of innovative means of contributing to estuarine fish conservation in a South African context include the determination and implementation of the ecological freshwater requirements for estuaries, the zoning of estuaries for different uses and the recognition that the maintenance of ecological processes are vital to aquatic ecosystem health. Apart from the designation of protected areas, the main direct means of conserving fish species and stocks include habitat conservation, controls over fishing methods, effort, efficiency and seasonality, pollution control and the prevention of artificial manipulation of estuary mouths. Since becoming a democracy in 1994, environmental legislation, policy and institutional arrangements in South Africa have undergone some major changes, which, if fully implemented, will be very positive for fish conservation in estuaries on the subcontinent.