18 January 2014

Tanzania: Mtera Tilapia Discovery Excites Marine Scientists

THERE is an air of excitement among fish scientists and researchers after a species was discovered that has been dubbed the Mtera Tilapia that can exist both in fresh and salt water.

Speaking at the conservation biology and genetics of freshwater fishes in Tanzania workshop, the Tanzania Fisheries Research Institute (TAFIRI) Senior Research Scientist, Dr Benjamin Ngatunga said that there was indeed good news to science and to future food security.

"Thanks to the Royal Society Africa Award, Tanzania and two United Kingdom universities have for the past three years been gathering data from freshwater lakes and one of our findings was the Mtera Tilapia and we feel this is a good candidate for further development," he explained.

The findings that were released are from the Molecular Ecology of Fish project after three years of collecting data in five valleys in Ruvuma, Nyasa, Rukwa, Ruaha and Rufiji that is being implemented by TAFIRI, the University of Bangor and the University of Bristol.

Dr Ngatunga said that Tanzania being the only country in Africa to border all the Great Lakes namely Tanganyika, Nyasa and Victoria was unique in that it has over 1000 fish species and of the 50 Tilapia species that exist in Africa, 26 are in Tanzania.

He cited that the country was blessed to have a different species in various inland lakes, rivers, dams, wetlands and therefore advocated that policy makers should make a point to encourage native tilapia to be bred in their regions.

"With more than 20 species present in the country, it beats my understanding why we are relying on the Nile Tilapia only to be bred. The government can save time, costs and conserving biodiversity by encouraging this development to be done in the regions where these fish come from," he suggested.

The Ministry of Livestock and Fisheries Acting Director of Fisheries Development, Ms Mwanaidi Mlolwa said that as a government that is driven by results from scientific research, they were keenly looking into the findings of the data collection and its applicability.

Ms Mlolwa said she had listened carefully to the findings of the data that had been reviewed and that she was impressed but more work by other experts needed to be done.

One of the principal investigators from the UK, Prof George Turner of the School of Biological Sciences from the Bangor University, who collected data on crater lakes fish and origins of new species said that his excitement was beyond words.

Prof Turner said that the results were showing that new species were being formed from the splitting into two of old ones and they were happening in all seven crater lakes they had visited and sampled.

"I would suggest that there is a total ban on species introductions to be disseminated to all fisheries stations in the area such that this biodiversity is reserved because it is a huge potential to unlock many more information," he said.

The professor said that these discoveries have come at the right time in that the technology is now available to quickly decipher data (with the data collected in the three years, it would have taken 760 years to decipher) and the technology is now a lot cheaper than five years ago.

The other Principal Investigator from the University of Bristol, Dr Martin Genner said that his findings showed that biodiversity in the country was seriously underestimated largely because there are limited surveys and knowledge among academicians and researchers.

"This brings about the problem of making future developments because there is simply no data. Capacity needs to be put in place and it is for this reason that I put a lot of emphasis on having a guidebook such that it is known which species exist where.

I have started compiling ones as a personal initiative and will complete it in two years," he promised. The Wildlife Conservation Society Country Director, Dr Tim Davenport said that the findings were very engrossing, adding that to see the excitement of Prof Turner, an expert of many years was a clear indication that something interesting was boiling.

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