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SAEON reef fish project receives prestigious international grant


Denham Parker lifts the remotely controlled stereo-BRUV camera out of the water after a survey.

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Screen capture of a video clip taken by the stereo-BRUV camera.


Anthony Bernard, the recipient of the British Ecological Society grant.

By Beate Hölscher, Research Administrator, SAEON

The monitoring of marine protected areas by researchers from SAEON’s Elwandle Node has received a substantial boost through a grant from the British Ecological Society.

The grant has been awarded to Anthony Bernard and Dr Albrecht Götz. Anthony, a PhD student under Dr Götz, is working on a long-term monitoring programme of marine protected areas in South Africa’s Agulhas bioregion. In addition to the grant, they have also received a free two-year membership of the Society and free online access to its journals.

British Ecological Society - supporting research in ecology

The British Ecological Society was established in 1913 and has members worldwide, mostly scientists and individuals with an interest in ecology. The vision of the Society is to advance ecology and make it relevant in society. At a time when finite natural resources are being used at increasing rates, it has never been more important for human society to understand its impact on ecological systems and their importance in maintaining human health.

The stereo-BRUV technology and expertise has now been established at SAEON, through collaboration with the world leaders in the development of this technique. The project will employ stereo-BRUV to investigate the patterns in reef fish abundance, size structure and biomass, and distribution of reef fish assemblages in the Agulhas Ecoregion of South Africa.

The British Ecological Society grant is a prestigious international award which provides support for ecologists in Africa to carry out innovative ecological research. The Society recognises that ecologists in Africa face unique challenges in carrying out ecological research, and this grant is designed to provide them with support to develop their skills, experience and knowledge base as well as making connections with ecologists in the developed world.

Reef fish are important indicators

Reef fish are an important resource for subsistence, commercial and recreational fishers in South Africa. As elsewhere in the world, management of this resource has failed and reef fisheries have collapsed due to overexploitation. Monitoring of reef fish is critical to assess populations and to determine resilience of reef fish to the negative impacts of current and future climate change.

Data gathered through monitoring will allow managers to base their management plans on the best available information and will recognise the cross-border distribution of most fish stocks.

It’s all in the method...

Conventional monitoring methods for reef fish include shore-based angling and diving observations. These methods are not effective in the collection of high-quality data, owing to a lack of standardisation and comparability, and also because of restrictions to certain species, habitats or depth ranges.

A new method of underwater monitoring, known as Stereo Baited Remote Underwater Video (stereo-BRUV) has proved its worth in overcoming the shortcomings of conventional methods. Stereo-BRUV is currently the best technique for a global standardised monitoring protocol for reef fish.

The stereo-video system consists of a steel pyramid frame with two high-definition underwater digital cameras positioned to provide an overlapping field of view with a bait container in its centre. The system is deployed from a boat, with buoys marking the surface position of the various components, and is retrieved with a winch. The value of this system is that by observing through the stereo cameras, a measure of the size of the fish can be calculated in addition to abundance estimates.

The stereo BRUV technology and expertise has now been established at SAEON, through collaboration with the world leaders in the development of this technique. The project will employ stereo-BRUV to investigate the patterns in reef fish abundance, size structure and biomass, and distribution of reef fish assemblages in the Agulhas Ecoregion of South Africa.

For the first time ever in South Africa, a dataset will be compiled and standardised across all marine substrates and depth ranges of reef fish species. All the data are archived by SAEON and will form the basis of numerous studies.

By processing the BRUV images in conjunction with other data such as bathymetric maps and physical parameters (temperature, salinity, ocean currents, etc.), it will be possible to determine the effectiveness of the current marine protected areas network in the Agulhas Ecoregion at protecting important deep-water populations of threatened fish species.

The ultimate goal is the improved conservation of marine benthic biodiversity, improved fisheries resource management, and better knowledge of the role of marine protected areas in securing ecosystem service delivery. As such, the project will provide high quality and relevant information to fisheries and biodiversity managers in South Africa.

International collaborations

The project is expected to develop a strong collaborative partnership between the SAEON Elwandle Node and the University of Western Australia. Prof Euan Harvey and his team of senior researchers and students from the University of Western Australia are the global leaders in the field of baited remote underwater video monitoring of reef fish. Besides advising on the project to ensure a sound experimental design is adopted, they will also participate in some of the fieldwork.

Numerous postgraduate students will be involved in the project, from honours to postdoctorate level, thereby increasing the marine subtidal research capacity in South Africa.

Capturing underwater videos starring reef fish

The project is expected to raise considerable public awareness for marine conservation, since it creates exciting visuals that speak directly to the theme.

Earlier, two similar research projects employing a single camera version of the technique at Still Bay and False Bay by a student of Dr Götz, Lauren de Vos and other collaborators demonstrated the use of under-water footage to make science accessible and at the same time provide a glimpse into marine science. These underwater visuals were edited into small and very entertaining movie clips and have attracted a large amount of media attention, including reports in newspapers, magazines and even on television.

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The proposed stereo-BRUV project by Anthony is expected to generate similar media attention as it opens the little explored deeper marine world to both scientists and the public.

The British Ecological Society are gratefully acknowledged for their generous contribution to this project.


Figure 1: Map of the southern section of the South African coastline showing the position of the two study areas in the Agulhas Ecoregion (a), together with the zoomed in bathymetry for the study area in the vicinity of the Tsitsikamma National Park (b) and Bird Island (c) marine protected areas.

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