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Dr Matthew Burnett

Dr Matthew Burnett is worried about the fish, but more importantly about what lives off fish and what binds them all together.

Burnett has been shortlisted for the JWO Research Grant for his proposal entitled “Fishers, fish, and fish-eating waterbirds – interactions that can meet the sustainability goals for floodplains” and will focus on the Upper Zambezi River Basin.

With a Ph.D. in ecology, Burnett says his “passion for African wildlife has always been realised through the local communities that live alongside it. As such my focus has been on freshwater ecosystems, in particular freshwater fishes and fisheries.”

He says “the Upper Zambezi River Basin experiences stark wet and dry seasons that have shaped human and fish-eating waterbird communities, which are each dependent on its ecological functioning. The growth of small economies as human populations increase may negatively impact wildlife and disrupt ecosystem processes. The human-wildlife interactions in floodplains are generally unstudied despite their potential to guide sustainable management practice. Socioeconomics are equally important in understanding whether sustainability can be achieved.

He says that “consequently, there is a need to understand the relationships between fish, fish-eating waterbirds, and fishers in a shared landscape. The complexity in a floodplain system warrants an integrated approach, so here we propose that an ecological risk framework can guide decisions made in fishing practice. This can create a decision tool that can be updated seasonally and made available to local fishers, leaders, and managers. Using the tool collectively could improve socioecological and economic benefits, social cohesion, and system sustainability.”

Burnett says that “as part of my post‐doctoral fellowship at UKZN I focus on the contribution of water resource management to the neglected inland fisheries in South Africa. I have followed research on inland fisheries on the Pongola flood plain in South Africa because of its historical and cultural value. The contention between these fishers and wildlife has been an interest of mine as a potential model for sustainability if the social aspects are addressed. This does not negate conservation. Rather, if social cohesion were obtained and biodiversity benefit realised, local communities could self‐manage a fishery and its associated wildlife for sustainability.”

Explaining the background to his proposal, Burnett says “I enjoy studying natural relationships, which includes how people relate to their environment as it shapes our lives. How habitats are shaped with climatic factors, how animals move through these habitats and interact with each other, and how we interact with the landscape fascinates me.

“Then there is the response to human practice. For example, people harvesting wildlife for food alters the dynamics of a resource, shifting the ecological condition. Often ecosystems are studied considering people as separate entities. However, more and more, our practices, although they can be largely destructive, can still see wildlife persist and sometimes thrive when managed well. These trade-offs and benefits across various elements in an ecosystem often occur in conjunction with one another rather than in isolation, and they are complex.”

He says that one example of these relationships is inland fisheries. “Over millennia and across various cultures inland fisheries have always connected people to an ecosystem and provided them with protein. Fish are strongly connected to the seasonality of the hydrological system, where people make use of seasonal movements to target fish. In addition, fish not only provide food for people, but also for many terrestrial species. These relationships are connected, complex, and are changing with increased fishing pressure, habitat loss, and climate change.”

Burnett says “the need to develop a rural space to improve livelihoods often neglects the ecological processes that currently support livelihoods in that landscape. My interest in people in rural areas or on the cusp of wild open spaces has seen me integrate people into my ecological studies to better understand these socioecological dynamics. Enabling rural communities to collate complex systems into their decision process can aid the way they perceive the constraints in these environments and improve the way they manage natural resources.

Burnett emphasises that “environments are complex spaces that respond to both climatic, wildlife and human driven factors. To make informed decisions we need an integrated understanding of how our decision or practices may ripple through the ecosystem and respond to change. Sometime these linkages are direct, other times we get lost in the complexity or do not see the indirect links that may have negative unintentional consequences. In addition, our practices are often driven by the socioeconomics and social cohesion of a community. This impacts the availability of a natural resource and can jeopardise or improve the sustainability of our practice. Developing a decision tool that incorporates the complexities of a socioecological system to guide decision making, account for unintentional consequences, and improve the way we manage a natural resource will assist in achieving sustainable practice.”

Burnett says the fate of freshwater ecosystems hangs in the balance. “They are the most threatened ecosystems on the planet, yet they form the basis of ecologically diverse systems and support life. These ecosystems support human livelihoods for food production, infrastructure development and basic health care.

He says his research hopes to “demonstrate that biodiversity associated with seasonally available water may have greater benefits through ecosystem services rendered improving local socioeconomics. Integrating various inter- and trans-disciplinary components of a complex and dynamic floodplain system into a decision tool updated on availability of seasonal data can be made available to local fishers, leaders, and managers. Using the tool collectively could improve socioecological and economic benefits, social cohesion, and system sustainability.”

His approach is informed by his experiences while studying. “To complete my studies, I became a professional wilderness guide. I regularly took people out on back-pack trails into wilderness areas in Kruger National Park. Here artisan practices were regarded as primitive, yet formed the very back-bone on how I taught people to gather resources from the natural environment to survive in often foreign, harsh, unpredictable, and high-risk areas.

“At the same time, I collected my field work by tracking the movement of fish along the Crocodile River while living in a tent. I spent at most one month at home over a year and when I did, I’d sleep on the floor because that was what had become comfortable. When travelling other parts of Africa, I saw that living conditions are not easy, yet the persistence of people in these environments stems from a cunning ability to survive, using traditional knowledge of the landscape and animal behaviour. Importantly, I saw people and cultural perceptions of conservation marred with social challenges in a rapidly changing world. Conservation had to include people, but how?”

For Burnett, the future of the planet is not an academic abstraction. The personal is ever-present. Asked what gets him up in the morning, he answers: “In all honesty, now, my daughter. She is five years old and can’t sleep past 5am. I get up with her and ease into my day watching the sunrise and mentally preparing for the day before her toddler brother comes in and wreaks havoc.

“There is truth in that success comes in being diligent with the small things that add up to greater things. My goal of a holistic lifestyle being connected to our environment to improve it and people’s livelihoods starts with small daily increments that accumulate and create healthy habits. It is a process that requires intentionality. This is why I get up with my kids, I want to invest in them while I can and foster habits that can hopefully improve the way I treat people and our environment for a better life, not only for me, but others and future generations.”


Dr Matthew Burnett is a postdoctoral fellow at UKZN.

He has a Ph.D in Ecology Sciences, conferred for his thesis entitled “Environmental monitoring of freshwater ecosystems using telemetered behavioural indicators from free‐swimming fish in southern Africa.

Dr Matthew Burnett