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Richards Bay, on the northern KwaZulu-Natal coast, is the largest coal exporting port in South Africa. The coal is stored at the Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) prior to export. Dust from coal operations is a major problem in the Richards Bay area. In this study, we tested the hypothesis that coal dust adversely affects photosynthetic performance of Avicennia marina (Forssk.) Vierh., the dominant mangrove species in the harbour. Photosynthetic performance was determined on 10 trees by measuring carbon dioxide uptake and chlorophyll fluorescence parameters at two elevation sites and on upper and lower leaf surfaces that were covered or uncovered with coal dust. Measurements were made on five clear, sunny days at saturating light (>1000 μmol m−2s−1) and high temperature (28–30 °C). Coal dust significantly reduced carbon dioxide exchange of upper and lower leaf surfaces by 17–39%, the reduction being generally greater on the lower leaf surface that is covered by a dense mat of trichomes and salt glands. The reduction in carbon dioxide exchange by coal dust was higher at the high elevation site that supported isolated dwarfed trees. The chlorophyll fluorescence data indicated that leaves coated with dust exhibited significantly lower photosystem II (PS II) quantum yield, lower electron transport rate (ETR) through PSII and reduced quantum efficiency of PSII (FvFm). The chlorophyll fluorescence data supported the gas exchange measurements and are consistent with reduced photosynthetic performance of leaves coated with coal dust.