Dr Matthew Burnett, a postdoctoral researcher at UKZN’s Centre for Functional Biodiversity (CFB) and senior scientist with the Rivers of Life Aquatic Health Services applied research organisation, is the recipient of an Opportunity for Learning and Advancement in Fisheries (OLAF) Award from the American Fisheries Society (AFS).
This award – part of the AFS International Fisheries Section’s international and indigenous membership awards – assists members of the international community from low- and middle-income countries, as well as indigenous peoples, to access the AFS’s networking, conference and information exchange opportunities to grow their profile and research.
Boasting more than 8 000 members globally from various fields, the society’s activities include the publication of five academic journals, the hosting of scientific meetings, and professional development programmes to promote scientific research into and sustainable management of fisheries resources.
The OLAF award is named after the late Dr Olaf Weyl, an honorary research fellow at UKZN and Chief Scientist and Research Chair for Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. Weyl’s career focused on conservation and impacts of non-native fishes on endemic fish communities, and an evaluation of factors influencing the quality of recreational fisheries.
Weyl made significant contributions to inland fisheries throughout Africa, and the award perpetuates this legacy by providing access to developments in North America around fisheries and freshwater ecosystems that could be transferred for use by developing countries.
Burnett, who completed his PhD at UKZN in 2019 doing work that involved co-development of the Southern African Inland Fish Tracking Programme (FISHTRAC), was selected as an OLAF Award recipient from a number of other applicants.
The FISHTRAC programme uses the behaviour of fish in real-time to evaluate water quality and quantity stressors in the environment and relays this information to conservation or fisheries managers.
Burnett has published several papers using fish telemetry techniques to fill knowledge gaps in the behavioural ecology of iconic South African fish species such as yellowfish and tigerfish. This has included a review paper of fish telemetry techniques in African inland waters and their contribution to managing water resources.
‘Understanding freshwater ecology provides vital context to the issue of water provision to South Africa’s population as well as the country’s commitment to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),’ said Burnett.
In the context of the SDGs, he is applying fish telemetry to determine the efficacy of instream barriers associated with water storage facilities – such as dams – on fish and waterway health.
‘River connectivity has become an important consideration in the construction of water storage facilities – it desperately needs to be evaluated to sustain the diversity and abundances of African fishes so that we achieve the SDGs,’ he said.
Burnett aims to understand how to mitigate and manage stressors in freshwater ecosystems that include pollution events, water abstractions, and habitat fragmentation and alterations. His applied research has focused on rehabilitating fish populations after severe fish kills, fish community assessments across various land uses, and understanding the biology and ecology of iconic native fish.
Burnett, who leads the Rivers of Life KwaZulu-Natal branch and is expanding his field of research at UKZN’s CFB, is currently supervising several students who are learning critical skills within the water resource sector through applied research.
Words: Christine Cuénod