No: 31 March 2002

Fish Communities of the Mary River Coastal Wetlands
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 fish species. When the wetlands flood, a burst of primary production occurs as the huge amount of organic matter, built up over the dry season, suddenly becomes available. The shallow depths and often densely vegetated areas of the wetlands prevent large predators from moving into the area (LoweMcConnell, 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 the environment (Lowe-McConnell, 1987). Thus many species, such as barramundi and silver scats, time their spawning periods with the occurrence of the first floods, ensuring a productive and protective habitat and thus a greater survival rate for their young. The Mary River coastal wetlands are among the major seasonally inundated wetlands of the Northern Territory. These wetlands are situated 140 km east, north-east of Darwin, and cover an area of nearly 1,300 km2. The Mary River freshwater wetlands are dominated by floral communities including large areas of sedges, grasses and pockets of paperbarks, Melaleuca spp. Over the last few years, funding from the Natural Heritage Trust has supported a Northern Territory Fisheries Division study to investigate the fish communities of the Mary River coastal wetlands. The project officers caught, measured, identified and released over 13,000 fish, which represented 25 families 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 in the fish community over the duration of the wet season. Typically, the coastal wetlands of the Mary River are colonised at the beginning of the wet season by marine species such as barramundi, silver scats and mullet. When the wetlands are flooded, the rising waters re-link the inland permanent aquatic refuges with the coastal wetlands (de Lestang, 2000). The maze of creeks and channels linking the two habitats provides the means for the upstream, predominantly freshwater, species to move down onto the coastal wetlands. Thus, as the wet season progresses, the composition of fish species changes from one dominated by marine fish to one representing a combination of both marine and freshwater fish, that includes glassfish, rainbowfish and blue-eyes. Although a large number of fish species was identified across the Mary River coastal wetlands, a very small 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, but also as a source of abundant food including, algae, insects and microcrustacea. Large areas of submerged plants provide sites for laying eggs.

Interestingly, the project did identify times during the wet season when the wetlands were not so productive, and there were low numbers of fish. This happened mainly when there were very low levels of dissolved oxygen that generally occur after the first rains, when organic material, washed into the streams, decomposes. When there is an increase in biological oxygen demand, dissolved oxygen declines rapidly and anaerobic bacteria proliferate (Griffin and de Lestang, 1998). This often leads to a fish kill, when trapped fish suffocate. As more rains come, this deoxygenated water is flushed out to sea and the wetlands return to their wellknown productive state. The results of this Natural Heritage Trust/DPIFM project have indicated that the coastal Mary River Wetlands are an important habitat, supporting a large and diverse range of fish.

Point Stuart

Loc. 1

Loc. 3

Loc. 2

Loc. 4

Mary River

Figure 1. Map showing approximate location of sampling sites

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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Table 1. Family, genus, species, common names and length ranges of fish identified along the wetlands Family
Ariidae Belonidae Centropomidae Chandidae

Genus species
Arius graeffei Arius leptaspis Strongylura incisa Strongylura kreffti Lates calcarifer Ambassis agrammus Ambassis gymnocephalus Denariusa bandata Chanos chanos Nematalosa erebi Elops hawaiensis Bostrychus sinensis Bostrychus zonatus Butis butis Hypseleotris compressus Mogurnda mogurnda Oxuderces wirzi Oxyeleotris lineolata Prionobutis microps Gerres filamentosus Chlamydogobius ranunculus Mugilogobius mertoni Mugilogobius platystomus

Common name
Blue catfish Salmon catfish Reef longtom Freshwater longtom Barramundi Sailfin glassfish Glassfish Pennyfish Milkfish Bony bream Giant herring Chinese gudgeon Sunset gudgeon Crimson-tipped gudgeon Empire gudgeon Purple spotted gudgeon Peacock mudskipper Sleepy cod Small-eyed gudgeon Silver biddy Estuarine desert-goby Merton's mangrove goby Island mangrove-goby Orange-spotted mudskipper

Length range (mm)
85-389 85-391 230-390 210 6-614 6-45 15-52 12-35 325 60-311 218-295 30 22-26 19-49 12-66 13-56 15-33 365 11-59 38 30-49 8-35 21-31 14-55

Clupeidae Elapidae Eleotrididae

Gerreidae Gobiidae

Periephthalmus novaeguineaensus
Haemulidae Megalopsida Melanotaeniidae Mugilidae Redigobius bikolanus Pomadasys kaakan Megalops cyprInoides Melanotaenia nigrans Melanotaenia splendida inornata Liza alata Liza melinoptera Liza tade Squalomugil nasutus Valamugil engali Valamugil buchanani Platycephalus sp. Neosilurus hyrtlii Porochilus rendahli Eleutheronema tetradactylum Pseudomugil cyanodorsalis Pseudomugil tenellus Scatophagus argus Selenotoca multifasciatus Nibea sp. Sillago lutea Brachirus selheimi Ophisternon gutturale Amniataba percoides Amphitherapon caudovittata Leiopotherapon unicolor Therapon theraps Terapon jarbua Marilyna meraukensis Toxotes chatareus Speckled goby Yellow finned javelinfish Tarpon Black-banded rainbowfish Chequered rainbowfish Diamond mullet Otomebora mullet Tade mullet Pop-eye mullet Mullet Buchanan's mullet Flathead Hyrtl's catfish Rendahl’s catfish King threadfin salmon Blue-back blue-eye Delicate blue-eye Spotted scat Striped scat Croaker Mud whiting Selheim’s sole Single-gilled eel Barred grunter Flag-tailed grunter Spangled perch Largescaled therapon Crescent grunter Marilyn’s mangrove pufferfish Common archerfish 16-24 15 15-357 12-48 6-140 23-580 40-105 14-450 30-235 83-340 78-122 39-42 71-170 115-132 16-185 11-31 5-39 20-30 4-112 60 27-114 20-92 74-94 19-182 13-172 72-134 78 11-108 9-128 78

Platycephalidae Plotosidae Polynemidae Pseudomugilidae Scatophagidae Sciaenidae Silliginidae Soleidae Synbranchidae Teraponidae

Tetraodontidae Toxotidae

25 Families

54 Species

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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The following is a brief description of the six most abundant species found in the Mary River coastal wetlands during the study. The information has been taken from Freshwater Fishes of the Northern Territory, (Larson and Martin, 1989) with permission of the authors. 1. Sailfin glassfish Ambassis agrammus

Habitat and Distribution: A common fish widely distributed in all Northern Territory freshwater coastal streams and billabongs, especially in areas where aquatic plants are thick. Features: These glassfish are small, deep-bodied fish. The dorsal fin is very high with a black band along the length. The pelvic and anal fins are black with bluish-white spines. Size: Sailfin glassfish grow to 7 cm in length. Food: These fish are carnivorous, eating tiny crustacea, aquatic insects and their larvae. They also eat algae and other organic debris. Breeding: Sailfin glassfish seem to have a definite breeding season, which begins in the early wet. Females usually produce over 1,000 eggs, which are distributed among the aquatic plants. Both sexes mature at about 3 cm.

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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2. Diamond mullet Liza alata

Habitat and Distribution: This is a marine fish that is known to travel hundreds of kilometers upstream in major rivers. It can become landlocked for long periods of time and is the most freshwater tolerant of all the mullet of the Northern Territory. Features: Diamond mullet have two dorsal fins, large scales and specialised lips and teeth. They have a flattened head and the pelvic fins can be yellow or orange. Size: Average size is about 30 cm with larger fish reaching 57 cm in length. Food: Diamond mullets eat algae, diatoms and large amounts of detritus. Breeding: Diamond mullets spawn in estuaries in groups releasing large numbers of tiny free floating eggs 3. Chequered rainbowfish Melanotaenia splendida inornata

Habitat and Distribution: Chequered rainbowfish are found in a wide variety of habitats, and are among the most common freshwater fish in the Territory.

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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Features: The fish tend to be deep bodied with distinct contrasting spotting on the unpaired fins. These fins can be golden yellow, blue or blue-green, variations may depend on habitat or which river system the fish came from. Size: They grow to about 10 cm. Food: They eat filamentous algae, aquatic and terrestrial insects as well as other small crustaceans and invertebrates. Breeding: They breed all year but spawning peaks during the early wet season. 4. Delicate blue-eye Pseudomugil tenellus

Habitat and Distribution: The delicate blue-eye fish has a very patchy and restricted distribution in the Northern Territory. It lives in smaller streams and billabongs, wherever aquatic vegetation is thick and the current slow to moderate. Features: The body is translucent, yellowish to bluish depending on the habitat, with the back darker, and a row of pale gold-edged scales present along the middle of the sides. Size: Delicate blue-eyes usually grow to 2.5 cm length but have been recorded to 4 cm Food: Microcrustacea and algae are this species’ main food source; it also takes small insects and their larvae. Breeding: Breeding takes place mostly during the early wet season, but the preferred spawning habitat is not known. The colour of males intensifies during courtship behaviour.

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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5. Barramundi Lates calcarifer

Habitat and Distribution: Barramundi are found in all large coastal river systems of the Northern Territory. They live in the upper reaches of the rivers while growing to maturity, then move downstream to the estuaries for breeding. Features: A barramundi has a large mouth on a long head, a protruding lower jaw and a humped back. Juvenile fish are mottled brown with whitish blotches and a white stripe along the head. Adult fish are silvery with a greenish-grey to blue-grey back. Size: Barramundi are reported to grow to 180 cm in length and weigh up to 60 kg; however a fish of this size would be extremely rare. Food: This is the top predatory fish in Northern Territory rivers. It mostly eats fishes, some prawns, frogs and insects. Breeding: The breeding biology is complex with small fish nearly always being male, turning into females later in life. Males mature at around three to five years and become females at around 90 cm but only after returning to the estuaries to spawn. Large fish over 90 cm found in billabongs are males. Spawning takes place in estuaries among mangroves or over the mudflats, and the time of spawning is influenced by such factors as tides and temperature. Females produce millions of free drifting eggs. After hatching, fish move into coastal wetlands and then into the rivers and billabongs. For more information refer to Fishnote No. 27 ‘Barramundi - your questions answered’

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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6. Silver scat Selenotoca multifasciata

Habitat and Distribution: Silver scat is a widely distributed marine fish, which lives in estuaries when adult. It can travel up rivers a good distance (especially as juveniles). Individuals can adapt completely to fresh water. Features: Silver scats are deep bodied, compressed, silver in colour with eight to 12 blackish bars across the back, breaking into spots down the lower sides. They have venom glands at the base of the fin spines, which can inflict a painful wound. Size: Silver scats grow to 41 cm in length Food: They eat small bottom dwelling animals and detritus, as well as algae. Breeding: Nothing is known about the breeding biology of this fish.

Thanks to Christopher May, Ron Bowman and David Wilson for kind permission to use their drawings in this Fishnote and also to Helen Larson for the fish descriptions.

© Northern Territory Government, 2006

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Bishop, K.A. and Forbes, M.A. (1991). The freshwater fishes of northern Australia. In: ‘Moonsoonal Australia: Landscape, Ecology and Man in the Northern Lowlands.’ C.D. Haynes, M.G. Ridpath and M.A.J. Williams, eds. A.A. Balkema Publishers, Netherlands. de Lestang, P. (2000). The fish communities of the Mary River coastal wetlands: Implications of saline intrusion control bunds. B.Sc. Honours Thesis, Northern Territory University. de Lestang, P. and Griffin, R.K. (1999). Impacts of Saline Intrusion on Barramundi in the Mary River Region. Fishery Report No. 50. Department of Business Industry & Resource Development. de Lestang, P., Griffin, R.K., and Allsop, Q.A. (2001). Assessment of Fish Passageways on Fish Migration. Fishery Report No 63. Department of Business Industry & Resource Development. Griffin, R, K. and de Lestang, P. (1998). Fish Kills in the Mary River, Fishnote No. 26 Department of Business Industry & Resource Development. Larson, H.K. and Martin, K.C. (1989). Freshwater Fishes of the Northern Territory. Northern Territory Government Printing Office, Northern Territory. Lowe-McConnell, R.H. (1987). Ecological studies in tropical fish communities. P.S. Ashton, S.P. Hubbell, D.H. Janzen, P.H. Raven and Tomlinson, eds. Cambridge University Press, London. Quentin Allsop can be contacted at: Department of Primary Industry, Fisheries and Mines GPO Box 3000 Darwin NT 0801 Phone: (08) 8999 2144 Email:

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Department of Primary Industry, Fisheries and Mines © Northern Territory Government, 2006 ISSN 1035-008X Disclaimer: While all care has been taken to ensure that information contained in this Fishnote is true and correct at the time of publication, the Northern Territory of Australia gives no warranty or assurance, and makes no representation as to the accuracy of any information or advice contained in this publication, or that it is suitable for your intended use. No serious, business or investment decisions should be made in reliance on this information without obtaining independent/or professional advice in relation to your particular situation.

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