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The first week of the survey

It is a good feeling to have the Indian Ocean gently tossing us up and down while we are busy recording its secrets from the deep. Not everybody felt so when we headed into the southeast trade wind leaving Maputo a week ago. For a day or two it seemed as we had forgotten some of our scientists in the harbour, given many empty seats at the dinner table.

table. But after two days of tumbling stomachs and confused equilibrium organs we now all join at meals and the smiles are back again. In fact, the weather here is just beautiful once the rhythm of the sea takes you.  

Guided tour of the vessel


FAO-representative speaks.

On the evening of the official kick-off day of the survey, 27 September, the Norwegian Ambassador Thorbjørn Gaustadsæther hosted a reception on board with about 50 guests from the Ministry of Fisheries, the local diplomatic corpse and the local press. FAO Resident Representative Maria Zimmerman described the new FAO EAF  programme under which the survey is organised, and the Minister of Fisheries in Mozambique, Mr. Cadmiel Filiane Muthemba, explained the importance and the high expectations of the survey from the government side. To demonstrate the vessels capabilities and what results it could produce, a guided tour of the vessel was given. Some toasts and canapés later we were off to sea… the next day.
Trawling at Delagoa Bight


Minister fisheries speaks.

The survey has now been running for about a week, covering the wide marine plateau called Delagoa Bight just off Maputo. Days are spent mainly on bottom trawl sampling at varying intervals, following a systematic net of transects where we also record all pelagic fish by the ships advanced acoustic system. Along the way, we also take samples of plankton, bottom sediments with their fauna and the marine environment.

It is 30 years since the first Nansen survey in Mozambique and 17 years since our last visit with the old Dr. Fridjof Nansen. That vessel was replaced in 2004 with a new and larger one, the present Dr. Fridtjof Nansen, carrying on the legacy of the long running programme. This actually is the first survey in the Indian Ocean by the new vessel. Since it was new 14 years ago it has worked exclusively on the western coast of Africa.

The scientific team

On-the-job training in survey techniques is another main outcome of the survey. The research onboard is fronted by a scientific team of 12 persons from Mozambique, headed by the local cruise leader, Nilza Dias. Most of them are from the national fishery research institute in Maputo, IIP, while the plankton work is lead by a small team from the university in Maputo.  This is their survey and the data to be collected belong to Mozambique. The small Norwegian research team of four’s main function is to facilitate the work; see that all equipment functions well, the sampling routines run smoothly and that data are securely stored in the database.

Taxonomy – a way of life

When "Dr. Fridtjof Nansen" enters into a new geographic region we usually request professional assistance for identifying the many new fish species we will encounter. FAO has for more than 30 years built species catalogues and field guides for species identification and has access to a wide international network of specialists. We can chose from a wide range of professionals who are happy to work onboard for having the travel costs covered and free board and lodging onboard. Taxonomy seems not to be only a profession, but a way of life.


A male ray (Raja-stenorhynchus) more than one meter across its wings.

This time we have been especially lucky. This survey’s taxonomists in the field are Elaine and Phil Heemstra from Grahams Town, South Africa. They are from the South African Institute for Aquatic Diversity which stores the biggest collection of preserved fish species in the southern hemisphere. The couple has been working for decades on the fish fauna in the region and are now working on a book on the fishes of the Western Indian Ocean. We provide them with loads of fresh material for photography and reference samples for the museum archives. In return, we get all our taxonomic riddles solved, if necessary with the backup from the world network of taxonomist. That is what one may call a win-win situation!

Today we got a rare ray of which there is only one specimen stored in the museum, a female. And here we got the male! Now this fish, more than one meter across its wings, is resting at the floor in the cold store, soon ready for eternal fame as a reference specimen in the museum. We are mainly working between 200 and 800 m bottom depth, and the taxonomists have long and busy days recording and archiving what is brought on deck.

We need about four more days to complete the work on the plateau, and then after a short call in Maputo for exchange of crew, we are heading north towards even warmer waters, a more tropical fauna and certainly new exiting challenges in taxonomy. Mozambique has an extended coastline crossing 16 latitude degrees, while Norway, to compare, ‘only’ stretches across 13 degrees. It will be close to Christmas before we are back at this latitude again, when the survey winds up in Maputo on 21 December.

By Tore Stroemme