This paper reports on the composition, abundance and distribution of the larval fish assemblage in the nearshore coastal waters off the St Lucia Estuary mouth, South Africa. Ichthyoplankton samples were collected over a 12 month period from five stations located along a transect up to 25 km offshore, and from two stations north and south of the estuary mouth, respectively. In all, 6126 fish larvae, representing 89 families and 186 species, were collected. Larvae in the families Myctophidae and Tripterygiidae comprised 21% and 16% of the total catch, respectively. The most abundant species were an unidentified triplefin, Tripterygiid 1 and the lanternfish Benthosema fibulatum, together which contributed nearly 18% of the total catch. Larvae of marine spawners independent of estuaries dominated the catch both in terms of density (90%) and in terms of number of taxa (89%). Some larvae of estuarine-associated species were present, in addition to a few specimens of estuarine resident species. Overall the dominant environmental variable affecting larval densities was temperature, particularly for Trypterygiid 1 where temperature contributed to 9% of the variance model. Densities of fish larvae peaked in November and December 1990 (late spring and early summer) and were lowest from January to June 1991 (summer, autumn an early winter). Different taxa dominated the catch each month with reef-and shelf-associated species accounting for the peak in August and September 1990, oceanic species in November 1990 and a mixture of the two groups in December. Overall larval densities were significantly higher in bottom samples with a trend of increasing densities offshore for reef and shelf taxa. The larvae of reef and shore taxa were predominantly preflexion larvae, whilst the few estuarine spawner species that were collected were mainly postflexion. Ontogenetic patterns related to depth and distance offshore were evident for the dominant species in each estuarine-association category. The present study has shown that temporal and spatial variations in the larval fish assemblage off St Lucia are related to environmental conditions and ontogenetic behavioural patterns of certain species. The origin of many of the larvae in the assemblages off the coast of St Lucia is probably from both local spawning populations in the shelf waters off KwaZulu-Natal and spawning populations farther north in shelf waters off Mozambique. Additional studies with more detailed oceanographic measurements will further our understanding of the physical processes that supply larvae to the St Lucia region.
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