World Fish Migration Day Goes with the Flow for an Online Commemoration

The annual World Fish Migration Day (WFMD) – traditionally celebrated on 16 May worldwide – has taken the COVID-19 pandemic in its stride, postponing its traditional 2020 celebrations to 24 October this year, however hosting a 24-hour webinar on 14 May to continue the mission of creating awareness of the importance of free flowing rivers and migratory fish.

UKZN’s Aquatic Ecosystem Research (AER) group in the School of Life Sciences will be part of the Global Swimways Webinar Marathon, which will include contributions from every country as it “follows the sun” to begin in New Zealand and end in North America, with a special session for Africa.

The free global event will cover multiple time zones and has been broken up into nine sessions lasting between one and two hours, with each accommodating up to 500 participants.

Experts from around the world will talk about migratory fish and the swimways they migrate throughout, inviting participants to uncover and explore different species and journeys in systems that range from the Yangze River basin to the rapids of the Colorado River. Practitioners and experts will address global swimways, species population status and trends, as well as sharing best practices and experiences to inspire participants to take action. According to the organisers, the webinar is suitable for people around the globe who are, or want to be, active and passionate about rivers, fish and nature.

Joining the discussions at 13h30 South African Standard Time will be Dr Gordon O’Brien from the University of Mpumalanga, who works with the AER and will present on the status and trends of river restoration and fish migration in Africa.

Every year on WFMD, the AER raises awareness about South Africa’s migratory fish, whose routes are often cut off by dams, pollution and disturbance of wildlife. South Africa is home to the largest migrating shoal of fish on earth each year with the Sardine Run in winter, while yellowfish (which are an important indicator of ecosystem health) once migrated through the Thukela River in such numbers that the river appeared gold. Other fascinating fish migrations in Africa once included the movement of sharks into the Kruger National Park via Mozambique.

Fish migrations form an essential part of larger ecosystems, which include people. The ecosystem services that migrating fish provide are important for the environment and the people that rely on it. These over-subscribed ecosystems face increasing stressors such as drought and migratory barriers that impede their functioning, and the AER is working to emphasise the value of fish, systems and processes and to encourage people to support these systems to help them to survive.

The AER investigates what habitats and environmental conditions fish need and how to provide these, and focuses on educating people and increasing awareness of the sustainable use and protection of water resources. It also addresses fisheries management, water resources management, ecological risk, the behavioural ecology of fish, river and estuary health, and aquaculture.

As part of the WFMD commemorations, AER PhD candidate Ms Céline Hanzen participated in a virtual conference with the international non-profit organisation for eel conservation and citizen science education Eel Town, on 9 May, speaking about her research on African freshwater eels as a flagship species for river connectivity in the western Indian Ocean.

Words: Christine Cuénod

Photograph: Supplied