Hypoxia in mangroves: Occurrence and impact on valuable tropical fish habitat

Alexia Dubuc, James Cook University
Ronald Baker, University of South Alabama
Cyril Marchand, Universite de la Nouvelle-Caledonie
Nathan J. Waltham, James Cook University
Marcus Sheaves, James Cook University


Intertidal mangrove forests are harsh environments that can naturally experience hypoxia in association with low tide. However, we know relatively little about dissolved oxygen (DO) fluctuations and DO-induced responses by fish, although DO is a fundamental water quality parameter. This study examines DO as a potential factor regulating the utilisation of intertidal mangrove forests by fish and consequently their widely recognised feeding, refuge and nursery values. We deployed underwater video cameras, coupled with DO and depth loggers, in a mangrove forest to record changes in fish assemblages in response to tidal variations in DO and other associated environmental parameters. Our results indicate that DO underwent extreme tidal fluctuations, reaching levels as low as 14% saturation. As DO was identified as a significant factor for explaining variability in fish assemblage composition, we further investigated fish responses to DO fluctuations. Higher taxonomic richness and frequencies of occurrence were observed once DO reached 70%-80% saturation. More detailed examination revealed species-specific responses. Three distinct patterns of mangrove utilisation in response to DO were identified, driven by apparent taxa's behavioural DO avoidance thresholds. Most taxa did not display any behavioural avoidance, including presence at the lowest DO levels, while other taxa were not observed either below 50%-60% saturation or below 70%-80% saturation. This implies that tidal migrations, often observed in intertidal environments, could be the result of differential DO tolerances and are not simply initiated by changes in water depth. Taxa remaining in the mangrove forest even at low DO were on average more frequently observed than the other taxa and were mostly species commonly associated with mangrove habitats. This suggests that being adapted to withstand low DO might be an important condition for using mangrove habitats extensively. The need of being tolerant to low DO could constrain fish utilisation and explain the relatively low species richness often observed in other intertidal mangrove forests.