UKZN Mourns Death of Aquatic Biology Expert

UKZN – including those in its School of Life Sciences – is mourning the death of Honorary Research Fellow Professor Olaf Weyl, who was Chief Scientist and Research Chair for Inland Fisheries and Freshwater Ecology at the National Research Foundation’s (NRF) South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (SAIAB).

Born in Germany, Weyl grew up in southern Africa and completed his Bachelor of Science in Geography and Zoology and his Bachelor of Science Honours in Ichthyology Fisheries Science at Rhodes University.

Continuing with postgraduate studies through Rhodes University, he completed his PhD on the dynamics of a subtropical lake fishery in central Mozambique while working for the Gesellschaft für Technische Zusammenarbeit (GTZ) Mozambique Agricultural and Rural Reconstruction Programme, going on to manage fisheries research in Malawi for GTZ and the Government’s National Aquatic Resource Management Programme.

He then worked as a postdoctoral researcher and senior lecturer at Rhodes University, joining the SAIAB in 2009 where he focused his research on the impact of alien fishes and the influence of anthropogenic factors on aquatic ecosystems. Working on freshwater ecosystems in several African countries including Mozambique, Malawi, Namibia, Botswana, Zambia and South Africa, he used his multidisciplinary research to better inform management of Africa’s aquatic biodiversity by investigating natural systems and processes as well as on understanding how humans alter and benefit from aquatic systems.

With an NRF C2 rating, Weyl worked on extensive invasive fish related projects, provided policy support concerning inland fisheries and legislation on alien fish management, and worked on developing decision-making tools for nature conservation departments.

He was a lead author and expert on reports for the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES), served on editorial boards of several journals, and provided expert advice while collaborating with a wide variety of academic and conservation institutions and organisations in South Africa, Malawi, Namibia and Germany.

Weyl began collaborating with researchers at UKZN around the time he joined SAIAB, and from 2017, as one of the few researchers who focused on freshwater eels, he mentored postdoctoral researcher Dr Céline Hanzen during her PhD research on the diversity, distribution and spatial ecology of freshwater eels in South Africa. Hanzen went on to design a catchment scale study of eel spatial ecology in the Eastern Cape and KwaZulu-Natal with Weyl and his team, and collaborated with him on a review for a book on global eel sciences.

Hanzen remembered Weyl as a great supporter and mentor, whose feedback on and input into her work aided her learning. She praised his candour, caring qualities and sense of humour, saying the aquatic sciences students he co-supervised or mentored are his legacy.

Weyl passed away while seeking new trout genetics sampling sites in Hogsback. He leaves his wife, Michelle, twin daughters Olivia and Philippa, and his parents and siblings.

‘He was an excellent fish biologist and will be a great loss,’ said Professor Colleen Downs, South African Research Chair in Ecosystem Health and Biodiversity in KwaZulu-Natal and the Eastern Cape.

Honorary Research Fellow at UKZN and senior lecturer at the University of Mpumalanga, Dr Gordon O’Brien, remembered Weyl for championing excellent science and putting southern Africa on the map in terms of aquatic biodiversity.

‘He has made noticeable contributions to the inland fisheries and ichthyology research of UKZN researchers and regional scientists, and contributed to national policies and improved the balance between the use and protection of natural resources. He has contributed directly to the elucidation of the biology and ecology of many fishes and how all Africans use and can benefit from the ecosystems that they occur in,’ said O’Brien.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity