Ecosystem health of the Phongola floodplain, South Africa, based on fish diversity, community structure and health of selected species
De Swardt, Jürgen Johannes Streicher
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Following the construction of the Pongolapoort Dam in 1974, the potential impacts on the lower Phongolo River and floodplain due to alterations in the natural flow regime have caused concerns. Fish communities and population structures are directly influenced by these alterations. The only protected section of the Phongolo River is a 15 km reach and its associated pans that flow through the Ndumo Game Reserve. Historic data shows that the community and population structure of the fish in the Phongolo Floodplain has changed as a result of irregular flood releases. The Ndumo Game Reserve plays an important role in the conservation of many ecologically and economically important species as the pans inside the reserve serve as a refuge area in which these species can breed to replenish the fish numbers in the Phongolo River. The fish diversity inside the Ndumo Game Reserve is also higher when compared to outside. During the high flow period fish move into the floodplain pans as a result of the higher water level. Oreochromis mossambicus, the most common species found in this area, utilize Nyamiti Pan for breeding but the health of this species is under pressure due to severe infestations of Lernaea cyprinacaea and nematode parasites. Lernaea cyprinacaea is a parasitic copepod associated with the introduced exotic fish species Cyprinus carpio which is found in large numbers in various pans inside Ndumo Game Reserve. The presence of this alien species in the refuge area raises concerns as it competes for the same resources as the economically important native fish species. Nyamiti Pan is largely populated by adult cichlid species between the ages of six and ten years old. The importance of flood releases which simulate natural flow regime is emphasised by the negative impacts irregular floods have on fish health, community and population structure.