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Research Unveils Secrets Of Benguela Goby

Salmonids Water quality

NAMINIA & SOUTH AFRICA - It survives in a suffocating, toxic environment where no other vertebrate can. Researchers from Norway and southern Africa have discovered together how this unique fish species withstands the harshest of conditions.

Named the Benguela goby or bearded goby, this little fish is found only on the hypoxic (extremely oxygen-starved) continental shelf off Namibia and South Africa. After overexploitation of the region’s once-plentiful sardine stocks, the goby has taken over as the most important source of food for large fish stocks, marine birds, seals and penguins.

A great deal is now known about the goby’s life and adaptability – thanks to collaboration between South African, Namibian and Norwegian biologists on two lengthy projects funded under the Research Council’s South Africa - Norway Programme for Research Co-operation (SOUTHAFRICA). Their findings were presented earlier this year in the journal Science.

Until now, no fish was believed capable of surviving an environment swarming with jellyfish, where the mud and sediment contain toxic concentrations of hydrogen sulphide, and where the bottom 20 metres of water are nearly devoid of oxygen. But the goby, needless to say, has proven itself an adaptable survivor.

“The goby keeps to the hypoxic seabed by day, where it holds its breath while eating from the mud. By night, it swims up to replenish its oxygen debt and digest its food,” explains Anne Christine Utne Palm, the Norwegian project manager and Researcher at the University of Bergen. She is first author of the Science article.

“While the goby’s predators avoid jellyfish, the goby will rest atop them or swim freely between their stinging tentacles. This is how gobies evade predators,” explains Professor Anne Gro Vea Salvanes, who headed the Norwegian component of the first goby project and co-authored the article.

The South African project manager for both projects was Professor Mark Gibbons of the University of the Western Cape.

“This cooperation with skilled researchers in southern Africa has been incredibly positive and productive for us,” says Dr Utne Palm. She adds that new researchers have been trained through the projects, both in South Africa and Norway, and stresses that having access to research vessels from the Institute of Marine Research in Bergen proved vital to their work.

Dr Utne Palm and Professor Salvanes found that a satisfying sense of community developed during the projects. “On the research voyages in Benguela all of us – senior researchers and new recruits alike – bonded into one big family,” says Professor Salvanes.

The goby projects were carried out as part of the longstanding research cooperation between the University of Bergen, the University of the Western Cape in South Africa, and the National Marine Information and Research Centre in Namibia. In the final project period, the University of Oslo also took part.

“Our projects often start out as curiosity-driven research and end up with practical applications,” states Professor Salvanes. The goby project findings are now being used to develop ecosystem-based management of fisheries in the region.