No: 31March 2002
Fish Communities of the Mary River CoastalWetlands
Q. Allsop and P. de Lestang*, Fisheries Research, Darwin* Formerly DPIFM
The coastal, seasonally flooded wetlands of the Northern Territory are important habitats for many fishspecies. When the wetlands flood, a burst of primary production occurs as the huge amount of organicmatter, built up over the dry season, suddenly becomes available. The shallow depths and oftendensely vegetated areas of the wetlands prevent large predators from moving into the area (Lowe-McConnell, 1987). Thus the wetlands offer food, shelter and protection to a diverse suite of fish species(Bishop and Forbes, 1991). Seasonally flooded wetlands contain new habitats that reopen every year,and life history strategies of many fish have evolved to cope with these seasonal changes in theenvironment (Lowe-McConnell, 1987). Thus many species, such as barramundi and silver scats, timetheir spawning periods with the occurrence of the first floods, ensuring a productive and protectivehabitat and thus a greater survival rate for their young.The Mary River coastal wetlands are among the major seasonally inundated wetlands of the NorthernTerritory. These wetlands are situated 140 km east, north-east of Darwin, and cover an area of nearly1,300 km
. The Mary River freshwater wetlands are dominated by floral communities including largeareas of sedges, grasses and pockets of paperbarks,
spp.Over the last few years, funding from the Natural Heritage Trust has supported a Northern TerritoryFisheries Division study to investigate the fish communities of the Mary River coastal wetlands. Theproject officers caught, measured, identified and released over 13,000 fish, which represented 25families and 54 different species (Table 1) (de Lestang and Griffin, 1999; de Lestang, 2000, de Lestang,Griffin and Allsop, 2001). The study not only identified the fish community but also recorded a change inthe fish community over the duration of the wet season. Typically, the coastal wetlands of the MaryRiver are colonised at the beginning of the wet season by marine species such as barramundi, silverscats and mullet. When the wetlands are flooded, the rising waters re-link the inland permanent aquaticrefuges with the coastal wetlands (de Lestang, 2000). The maze of creeks and channels linking the twohabitats provides the means for the upstream, predominantly freshwater, species to move down ontothe coastal wetlands. Thus, as the wet season progresses, the composition of fish species changesfrom one dominated by marine fish to one representing a combination of both marine and freshwaterfish, that includes glassfish, rainbowfish and blue-eyes.Although a large number of fish species was identified across the Mary River coastal wetlands, a verysmall number was found to dominate the fish community which mainly included blue-eyes, barramundi,silver scats, mullet and rainbowfish. All these fish use the nutrient-rich wetlands not only as a refuge, butalso as a source of abundant food including, algae, insects and microcrustacea. Large areas ofsubmerged plants provide sites for laying eggs.