School of Life Sciences

Fishy Behaviour Discussed at International River Connectivity Conference

Dr Céline Hanzen, a postdoctoral researcher in the School of Life Sciences’ Centre for Functional Biodiversity (CFB) presented a talk at the international Fish Passage Conference on research on telemetry for management and conservation, waterway connectivity and fish passage.

Hanzen was invited to discuss the development of fish behavioural research in South Africa for management and conservation at the online event with close to 4 000 attendees, making it one of the biggest conferences for practitioners and researchers working on issues of river connectivity.

She spoke about the work of Rivers of Life Aquatic Health Services (ROL), an applied research organisation of specialist scientists from UKZN and the University of Mpumalanga who provide water resources management and conservation services throughout Africa.

‘We have been developing techniques to track fish and environmental variables in real-time and remotely in African inland waters,’ said Hanzen, a senior researcher in ROL who contributes to the implementation of different projects relating to fish migration and river connectivity.

In particular, Hanzen spoke about work led by ROL programme leader Dr Gordon O’Brien and senior researcher Dr Matthew Burnett on the FISHTRAC tool, a smart radio telemetry tag system that sends and receives data that can be accessed in real-time to assess the response of ecosystems to changes in ecosystem conditions.

Hanzen also spoke about ecological connectivity for fish and river conservation, and highlighted the importance of encouraging involvement and interest in this through school events or citizen science projects to connect people, fish, and rivers.

With threats to African river systems from anthropogenic habitat degradation, fragmentation, pollution, water resource mismanagement, and over-exploitation, ecosystems that include migratory fish species as well as a host of other flora and fauna are at risk. In South Africa, where water scarcity and growing demand on water resources make maintaining natural areas and waterways challenging, the lack of knowledge of the migration and movement requirements of native freshwater species in the region is an obstacle to their conservation.

ROL is among those working to close this knowledge gap through the use of traditional methods and smart telemetry techniques. Hanzen’s work has drawn attention to the importance of ecological connectivity between fresh and sea water and at a catchment scale for the conservation of freshwater eels, some of whom are recognised as threatened species and whose range and habitat are declining. Her doctoral studies concerned the spatial ecology of freshwater eels in South Africa and the implications for their conservation.

With almost a decade of experience working on terrestrial and aquatic ecology and conservation in Africa and Europe, Hanzen’s postdoctoral research concerns the migratory ecology of African eels and associated fisheries in the western Indian Ocean region as part of a multi-country project funded by the Western Indian Ocean Marine Science Association, with additional support through a postdoctoral fellowship from the Oppenheimer Memorial Trust.

She is one of 100 female scientists participating in the global Homeward Bound initiative promoting female leadership in Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics and Medicine.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied