Category Archive News

Sampling through the cold front

The team started off the River Eco-status Monitoring Program (REMP) second quarter (July-September, 2017) with the Thugela and uMngeni River catchments. The Thugela catchment team headed for central KZN and included the Mkomazana river along Sani pass. While the Umgeni team surveyed along the uMngeni River with a few sites in the Mlazi River. It so happened that a cold front swept over the province during the week of surveying creating magnificence views of KwaZulu-Natal back-dropped by the Drakensburg mountains covered in snow. The front made for some interesting weather to survey in with cold winds and temperatures.

The survey went well and even contributed to some of the genetic work the AER is doing on barbs Enteromius sp and freshwater eels, Anguilla sp.

In total 3 eels were caught, one on the Mooi River upstream from the Mooi-Thukela confluence and two on the Mlazi. All the eels were Anguilla mossambicus.  Eight E. anoplus were caught on the Mkomazana River near Sani Pass, while ever hopefull of catching the Maloti minnouw (Pseudobarbus quathlambae) there. Other barbs, E. gurneyi were caught on the Karkloof river in the Umgeni Catchment.

With over 3000km driven so far the REMP second quarter is off to a good start. We still have the southern and northern sites to do.

A survey in the Thukela estuary

The University of KwaZulu Natal (UKZN), Unit: Aquatic Ecosystem Research (AER) conducted a  survey to Thukela Estuary on the 19th-26th March 2017. The participants for this survey were Mphatheni Mthembu, Lungelo Madiya, Nombuso Gongo and Jennifer Cele. The Thukela estuary is situated approximately 100 km north of the city of Durban in KwaZulu-Natal. This estuary is shallow with relatively small surface area and has a large catchment area. It is one of an open river mouth estuarine system in South Africa thus making this entity more abundance and diverse in terms of species than temporal open/closed or closed estuaries. This entity is an importance estuary to humans and marine species supplying goods and services that can range from nursery grounds, fisheries, to recreational amenities. The purpose of the survey was to track and monitor changes in the Thukela estuary and ultimately determine the causes and effect for the identified changes.


The AER estuary team noted with concern the dynamism of this estuary in that the sediment deposited was slightly higher than previous surveys thus causing high sand exposure during low tide. The team suspected this years (2017) early flood for this increased sediment deposition in the estuary.

The Thukela estuary during low tide

The AER Team also noted that the Thukela estuary had a low salinity which indicated that this entity is dominated by the Thukela river input. This could be the cause for low marine fish species number and abundance found in the middle and upper reaches of the estuary.

The YSI water meter showing water quality reading of Thukela estuary

The AER estuary team used cast nets, fyke nets, gill nets and seine nets for sampling. It was noted that the seine net sampling efficiency was higher during cold days. The seine net also caught significant higher fish species than other nets combined. The fish caught were collected, measured, identified and recorded. The team found more fish species in the lower reaches of the estuary and the fish caught were dominated by juvenile marine taxa in those lower reaches of the estuary. These juvenile marine taxa were not high in species number as expected but were abundance. The most dominating species caught in this estuary were Mugilidae (Mullet), Caranx neberi (blacktip kingfish), Leiognathus equula (Slimy) Ambassis natalensis (Slender glassy) and Ambassis gymnocephalus (Bald glassy) although there are some species that are still to be identified which were not caught in large numbers.

The estuary team also collected benthos samples using the grab for laboratory analyzes. The water quality samples were also collected. The team noted with concern a variety of fishing activities taking place in the Thukela estuary, including illegal, largely subsistence gillnetting and they catch big fishes which were ready to spawn. These gillnetting are combined such that there could cover 2/3 or whole estuary across. These gillnetting efforts have been commercially driven by selling fishes to markets.


In conclusion, The AER group noted that the estuary was highly dynamic with high sediment exposure during low tide compared to previous survey. The group was also concerned with the extreme long gillnets used by locals for fishing. The group also noted high abundance of fish species as one move closer to the lower reaches of the estuary. This site survey proved to be useful for updating information in the Aquatic Ecosystem Research in University of KwaZulu Natal.

Our aquarium facilities

The Aquatic Ecosystem Research (AER) Aquarium is located at University of KwaZulu-Natal, Pietermaritzburg campus. The main purpose of building this facility is for fisheries scientists to conduct research on behalf of the department. Research to be conducted includes culture of Mozambique Tilapia, Oreochromis mossambicus, which will be used as feed for crocodile culture project, which aims to evaluate the suitability of fish as crocodile feed. Cultured Tilapia will also be used for a study that focus on evaluating the suitability of crocodile carcass as protein source for fish culture. some of the tanks will be used to culture O. mossambicus populations sampled from different rivers around KwaZulu-Natal to select suitable population for conservation of the species for Aquaculture purposes. O. mossambicus broodstock will be collected from Unizulu and culture experiment will be initiated.


Culture of Yellowfish will also be conducted in the aquarium to carry out a tag retention study on the KwZulu-Natal yellowfish, Labeobarbus natalensis. Comparing different tagging techniques and the use of external versus internal tags within a tropical terms of the aquarium progress, currently tanks, pipes and filters has been installed and the system is running very well and is in good condition for fish culture.

The following colleagues are acknowledged for operating the aquarium in success; Dr Gordon O’Brien, Matthew Burnett, Fortunate Mahlatse Mashaphu and Rendani Luthada-Raswiswi.

First field trip for our new team members !

It is time again for another River Health Programme round. Gordon and Céline, accompanied by the brand new team members, Carla Higgs, Mphatheni Mthembu and Fortunate Mashaphu conducted a site survey in the Umkomazana Catchment on the 09th February 2017.

Carla Higgs is one of our new PhD Students and she will focus her projects on ecological risk. Mphateni and Fortunate are master students who will respectively work in fisheries/river health and aquaculture. It was the occasion for our new members to train themselves in the field.

Gordon teaching Carla about SASS

Teaching how to use a clarity tube

The Umkomazana catchment is situated down Sani Pass, North of Himeville in KwaZulu Natal. It is one of major tributaries to the Umkomaas River, which enters it from the South. It has a longer upland valley section than the main river or its Northern tributaries, the Loteni and Inzinga. The Umkomazana River is a pool drop mountain stream and is 16 km in length. This entity once held a critical endangered cyprinid, the Maloti minnow, Pseudobarbus quathlambae and at the time it was recorded as showing a dramatic decline in population size following the introduction of trout to its habitat.  This species is now known to exist in six isolated Alpine populations in tributaries to the Orange River, Lesotho. The purpose of the survey was to conduct a survey (fish, invertebrates, diatoms, vegetation and water quality) in the framework of the River Health Program.

The team collected, measured, identified and recorded fish and invertebrates specimen. Presence of chubbyhead barb (Enteromius anoplus) is to be noted. DNA samples were collected for further analysis.

Welcome !

Tags, ,

Our team @Global Change 2016 Conference

This week, part of our team is attending the national Global Change conference 2016 in Durban.

They have been lucky to be part of a beautiful video showcasing the research relating to Global Change at UKZN.

Gordon is presenting on the holistic regional management of multiple water quantity, quality and other stressors in Africa using PROBFLO.


Gordon  and Relative Risk Model

Gordon is also presenting on behalf of Mbali and Madonna who were unfortunately unable to attend the conference. Their respective presentations focused on relative risk assessmenin the Amatikulu/Nyoni catchment and on the variability in communities of selected South African river dominated estuaries.

Céline is presenting a poster about her project and first findings. This is also her first participation to a conference !

Exciting positions available within the Aquatic Ecosystem Research Programme !


Three exciting MSc (possibly Ph.D) positions are available within the Aquatic Ecosystem Research Programme (AER) of the University of KwaZulu-Natal in Pietermaritzburg. The candidates will be integrated in a larger group of postgraduate students working in aquatic ecology within the AER. As part of an applied ecology group, the candidates will be expected to participate on other projects within the group.

 Project 1 (MSc/PhD): Behavioural ecology research on the KwaZulu-Natal Yellowfish (Labeobarbus natalensis) in the Umgeni River.

Behavioural studies using fish movement and activity as variables are widely used to monitor ecological consequences of change in aquatic ecosystems. Techniques involving radio-telemetry in particular have been used locally and internationally to characterise the biology and ecology of fish including habitat requirements, and response to adverse ecosystem conditions, using a relatively small number of individuals. This study has been designed to implement the FISHTRAC real time fish and water quality and quantity monitoring methods established for South African, in the Umgeni River to monitor the response of yellowfish to changes in water quality and flows over a two year period.

Project 2 (MSc/PhD): Fish as ecological indicators of ecosystem wellbeing in KwaZulu-Natal.

For the past three years the AER has been monitoring the wellbeing of fish communities in rivers across KwaZulu-Natal. The aim of this study is to expand on existing fish community wellbeing data and evaluate the wellbeing of communities using multiple lines of evidence. In addition this study will compare and evaluate these lines of evidence. This two year study includes fish community structure sampling in rivers and lakes throughout KZN.

Project 3 (M.Sc): Research on the diversity and population wellbeing of the Chubby head minnows of KwaZulu-Natal.

Historical data suggests that the Chubby head minnow group of KwaZulu-Natal (Enteromius anoplus and E. gurneyi) may be a complex of species which is important for the conservation our biodiversity in the province. Many populations of these minnows are threatened and potentially in need of conservation which includes possible changes in the conservation status of populations/species. The scope includes sampling of fishes throughout KwaZulu-Natal. The collection of samples/data for genetic and morphometric analyses and a rapid risk assessment of threats to wellbeing of these fishes.


  • Sc., Hons. degree in ichthyology, aquatic ecology, environmental sciences, zoology or similar (M.Sc for Ph.D candidates).
  • Willingness to conduct field work and participate on surveys with other Post-graduate students within the AER.
  • Drivers licence (experience driving 4x4s and towing trailers/boats would be an advantage).
  • Enthusiastic, punctual, hard-working and pro-active.

All projects include competitive bursaries and project operational costs. Applicants should submit a covering letter with motivation for a project, a CV, copies of their academic transcripts, and contact information for at least two references. Please apply to and visit our website ( for more information,

International students are welcome to apply.

Application closes 30 November.

Hazel in Sweden – The adventure continues

The past week I spent getting to know Lund better. Finding a bit more of the city every day and venturing to new parts (some were not new – I had passed by some time before since I got here, but in my lost state, only realised some time later, that I had in fact been there before).

Ullrika took me on a walk about one evening after work and gave me a tour. We walked into the cathedral which is busy being prepared for the Pope’s visit on Monday.  The Pope is visiting Lund to promote Chrisitian unity and Lund is preparing as the area around the central Cathedral is off limits on Sunday and Monday.

I’m really loving it in Lund – the beautiful architecture, the lovely atmosphere. It’s very peaceful and quiet, not a huge, big bustling city. I’m even used to being on my own.  Time to focus and reflect.

Lund can get very windy and that makes it feel even colder (as I am learning) but it’s all manageable with the right clothes or many layers of whatever you have.

This past week I attended a few seminars. It’s excellent to get to know the type of research that’s happening at Lund.  Collaboration and interdisciplinary studies are the norm here.  Also interesting to see how different research is presented and the collaboration between disciplines that are sometimes not so common in South Africa.

At the CEC, there are many visiting PhD students and researchers – very interesting research areas as well.

So I’m joining in the excitement about the Pope’s visit and in the meantime…reading ‘Understanding uncertainty’ by Dennis V. Lindley !

The first pic is the towers of Lund cathedral. The second is inside the cathedral and the last is the lovely tree-lined streets of Lund with the beautiful autumn colours


Next time you’ll hear all about my visit to Helsingor, Denmark (about 2 hours from Lund).

INVITATION – Dialogue to celebrate the World Fisheries Day and workshop on SA Fish Swimway Programme

We are pleased to announce that the SA Fish Swimway Programme will be hosting a workshop on the 21st of November 2016 in Pretoria. The University of KwaZulu Natal, together with WRC and SA Fish Swimway Programme Partners, will be hosting an event to celebrate World Fisheries Day. This will include presentations by fish specialists, followed by discussions reviewing the Swimway programme and refining the next steps. One of the speakers will be Mathew Ross, who in 2015 completed his PhD on fishway design in South Africa.  Representatives from the Kingfisher Project have also been invited, to talk about the current plans for Catchment Management Agencies in South Africa. During the workshop, we would like to specifically refine a suitable proposal that can be used for funding applications relating to fish migration in South Africa. We hope you will be able to attend ! 

Interested ? Please RSVP


Hazel in Sweden : First impressions

I’ve settled well in Lund. It’s a small city and I’m in an apartment in the city so I am within walking distance to most places. The city is typical Europe with much of its original buildings, beautifully preserved and a site to behold ! The central cathedral is majestic and many of the central university buildings are stunning. The weather is grey and rainy most of the time but the changing foliage makes up for this. The most stunning colours !  Next week we move to winter times and I’m told that we will soon be in store for very short days.

I miss my family and the warm weather back home but the locals are generally helpful and pleasant. The working environment at the CEC (Centre for Environmental and Climate Research) is very pleasant and people are welcoming and helpful. My host researcher, Ullrika Sahlin is very helpful and ensures that I’m okay.

The first week that I arrived, Ullrika invited me to her home and I attended her son’s school music concert, which was a fundraiser for a South African charity (Star for Life). The South African artists were from Durban and other parts of KZN and this was a real treat. They sang all the South African favourites. IT was a most memorable evening!!

Ullrika’s home is about one and half hours from Lund by train, out in the country.  It is beautiful out there, in Ullstorp!

My sense of direction is really bad so the first day or so I kept trying to find my way back home – which was not too difficult, after asking along the way.

Everyone here uses bicycles to get around but I don’t cycle… so Ullrika is trying to convince me to start – I don’t think so, especially with it getting progressively colder!

I enjoy the freedom of being able to walk everywhere, SAFELY, after living in South Africa. I dress sensibly and the rain doesn’t bother me too much, so getting around without my car is not a problem.

I am focussed on my research now and next month I present my research at a conference in Gothenborg.

The Hunt for Rare Fish

During the week of the 10th – 14th October several members of our research group, Dr. Gordon O’Brien, Mahomed Desai, Céline Hanzen and Lungelo Madiya, who were accompanied by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Aquatic Ecologist, Skhumbuzo Khubheka, went on a survey to locate some of our rarer fish species in Northern KZN. The area falls within the uSuthu-Mhlathuze Water Management Area and includes South Africa’s first World Heritage Site, the iSimangaliso Wetland Park as well as the Maputaland Centre of Endemism. Apart from its ecological importance, the area is also utilised for an array of socio-economic activities.

This was a preliminary survey and was meant to confirm the presence of our target species in certain systems and to collect DNA samples. Further surveys will be more undertaken that will be more protracted to allow for effective and relatively comprehensive sampling at sites.

From left - Skhumbuzo Khubekha, Dr. Gordon O'Brien, Mahomed Desai, Lungelo Madiya and Céline Hanzen

From left – Skhumbuzo Khubekha, Dr. Gordon O’Brien, Mahomed Desai, Lungelo Madiya and Céline Hanzen

The first day was just set aside for travelling and brain-storming to identify possible sites where the species could be located. Our base was Hluhluwe-iMfolozi National Park.



While the landscape is scenic and the large mammals attract many visitors , it is important to highlight and make the public aware that it is the smaller organisms that create a functioning ecosystem (such as the dung beetles pictured above). Whilst driving up from Durban we noticed that the area had received some rainfall which provided some respite from the drought that we are currently facing.

The first site was located on the southern end of Muzi Pan on the floodplain of the Mkuze River. Prior to sampling for fish we collected in situ water chemistry. With regards to this survey, fish were sampled using an electrofisher and seine nets. Thereafter, biotope details were recorded including depth, velocity, substrate and cover features.

Mahomed calibrating the water meters


Lungelo and Skumbuzo ready for sampling !





Brycinus lateralis

While the site yielded a relatively high diversity and abundance of species, none of our target species was recorded while going through the samples, until success; a single individual of a Brycinus lateralis was found! It is concerning that only a single individual was collected as unlike the other widespread Brycinus species in South Africa, B. lateralis is restricted to the Lake St. Lucia catchment.


The day we arrived, the Hluhluwe River in the reserve had reasonable flows compared to when we sampled there in September, when it was just a series of pools. Therefore, we decided to sample the river on the second day but outside of the park. However, when we arrived at our pre-selected site from Google Earth it was just a pool. Another success! We collected a few specimens of Micropanchax myaposae


Pool on the Hluhluwe river



Micropanchax myaposae (female)


Micropanchax myaposae (male)








We were somewhat surprised at collecting a resaonable diversity of species at the site given that trucks were abstracting downstream as well as the presence of relatively large quantities of solid waste.


Water abstraction on the Hluhluwe river

Furthermore, we wondered as to why the Hluhluwe river was flowing in the park but not where we had sampled. Then while looking at satellite imagery we identified a dam on the Hluhluwe River. The dam level was relatively low and consequently, there would need to be relatively high levels of precipation upstream in the catchment to fill the dam and to ensure adeqaute flows downstream.




On day three the weather turned for the worse but we nevertheless sampled. The selected site was a swamp forest stream in suburbia in Richards Bay, a predominantly industry based town.

The site was dominated by Barringtonia racemosa, a protected tree, and possessed specimens of Voacanga thouarsii whilst the understorey was dominated by ferns. It was in this stream that we recorded 7 Clarias theodorae, another rare species that we were hoping to collect. Unfortunately, the stream is negatively impacted as surface runoff from nearby hardened surfaces drain into it and noticeable quantities of solid waste were present in certain sections. In addition, stormwater drains were present adjacent to the stream and if these are blocked with solid waste and spill, the water quality will deteriorate.
20161013_121754-1024x768 20161013_123130






Clarias theodorae

Clarias theodorae

Unfortunately we were not able to find some of the other species that we were searching for. Although we did collect the aforementioned species that we were targeting, they were never present in relatively high  abundances. There were several other sites that we had sampled but we did not collect any of our target species. Were they not present at these sites? or are they so cryptic that we could not collect them? Do they have particular habitat requirements? These are some of the questions that need answering.

We did notice that all of the sites that we sampled were negatively impacted by anthropegenic influences. If unsustanibaly utilised and/or mismanaged we could lose our natural heritage and their associated ecosystem goods and services, upon which society itself relies.