Inaugural Lecture: Professor Peter Jacobus Britz

21 September 2011

Deputy Vice-Chancellors, Deans, Heads of Department, colleagues, students, family and friends of Prof. Britz, ladies and gentlemen - molweni, good evening, welcome.

The University Calendar lists all the current full professors of Rhodes University. One of the new entries recorded is Prof. Peter Britz.

This evening, as is our tradition, we have the presentation of the Inaugural Lecture that follows the University conferring the status of full professor on an academic.

It is an evening on which as academic peers, colleagues, students, family, friends, and the public we celebrate the intellectual and scholarly achievements of one of our professors.

In the past five years there have been many amusing and endearing inaugural titles. The title of tonight’s inaugural is “Adventures with Abalone: Aquaculture, Poaching, and Fishery Restoration” and is delivered by Professor Britz of the Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries Science (DIFS).

Although Prof Peter Jacobus Britz was born in Cape Town his family moved to Johannesburg where he later matriculated from Northcliff High School. This was followed by a two-year period of conscription into National Service.

Inspired by his love of the sea, he returned to Cape Town in 1979 to study marine biology at UCT where he was fortunate to be taught by an exceptional and inspiring generation of marine scientists that included George Branch, John Field and Charles Griffiths. 

While at UCT he became acutely aware of the inequities within South African society. He developed an interest in rural development and the idea of developing aquaculture technology as a means of providing food security.

During a “second national service” stint which he served working as a Biology teacher at Athlone and Crestway High Schools on the Cape Flats in 1983 and 84, he saved to travel and study abroad.

But while passing through Grahamstown on a surfing trip to the Transkei, he visited Rhodes and met with Tom Hecht at the newly established DIFS to find out about aquaculture postgraduate opportunities. Tom would not entertain any talk of overseas and said the best opportunity for Peter was right here at Rhodes.

And so in January 1985 Peter started as Research Officer at DIFS and the Foundation for Research Development National Aquaculture Programme while also embarking on his Masters Degree studies.

At the time Tom was pioneering aquaculture techniques for the African catfish or “barbel” and Peter became one of his first postgraduate students.

After graduating with an MSc cum laude in 1988, Peter spent six months working as a volunteer research officer at the National Centre for Mariculture in Eilat, Israel, which was developing technology for culturing sea bass and sea bream.

At the centre Peter heard of efforts to culture abalone in New Zealand and returned to South Africa convinced that the aquaculture of the South African abalone, or perlemoen, was an excellent opportunity. So he returned to Rhodes, newly married, with a great PhD idea, but no job, no lab, and no bursary.

Tom gave him an office technician leave replacement job. In 1989 he became a research officer in DIFS and promoted to the position of Lecturer the following year.

Wasting no time he took his idea to the fishing industry, persuading them to invest in a five-year research programme which might be successful in developing a profitable abalone farming technology. Marine Products (then a FoodCorp company) owned an abalone fishing quota and factory but, realising that they would probably lose these rights, backed Peter.

He converted Prof Brian Allanson’s old research station on the Kowie Estuary at Port Alfred into an aquaculture lab for pumping fresh sea water and set about developing feed and basic rearing systems for abalone.

Peter and his research group soon assisted Marine Products in the design and setting up of a pilot plant in Hermanus (to test the technology) and a full scale farm at Gansbaai then representing an investment of about R50 million.

Many of their basic designs are now standard on South African abalone farms.

The pelleted feed that Peter’s PhD (obtained in 1996) gave rise to is now marketed under the brand name of Abfeed and supplies approximately 80 percent of South African abalone farms and is exported to New Zealand and Chile.

Abalone farms, producing approximately 1000 tons worth R350 million in 2010, have replaced the legal fishery and saved jobs in the processing plants.

The farms employ over 1000 people directly on-farm and as many in the service industry. This has made a significant impact on the economies of the coastal towns where the farms are located.

Peter’s research base in the abalone industry has since led to new research initiatives to diversify marine aquaculture in South Africa, including projects on lobster and kob culture.

Another exciting new project which he co-leads with Cliff Jones and Martin Davies is the SAB Project Eden Project, which aims to make “more beer with less water”. Co-funded by the Water Research Commission and THRIP, the project is developing technology to recycle brewery effluent using High Rate Algal Ponding (in partnership with EBRU) and a constructed Wetland, and then aims to beneficiate the reclaimed water and nutrients by means of hydroponics and aquaculture.

The groundbreaking research contributed to SAB winning a prestigious Mail & Guardian “Greening the Future Award” water care award.

The abalone research group Peter leads has maintained an ongoing relationship with the industry since 1990. It has led to sustained research funding, jobs for graduates, abalone farms incorporating research as a key business strategy, and recognition of South Africa as a leader in abalone technology development.

Together with colleague Cliff Jones, he has been able to match industry funding through THRIP grants which have supported much of their research. The abalone research team has twice been runners-up in the DTI Technology Awards in the “THRIP research collaboration” category.

In recent years his attention has turned to fishery governance and trans-disciplinary approaches to the problem of achieving sustainable fishery management in a context of rural poverty. This has led to work on the Transkei subsistence fishery, and understanding and responding to the problem of abalone poaching.

He currently leads a five-year Water Research Commission Project, co-funded by the Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (DAFF), that will recommend governance arrangements for promoting livelihoods based on South Africa’s inland fish resources.

In recognition for his service to the abalone industry, Peter was elected President of the International Abalone Society in 2009 and was a member of an international task team appointed by the WWF to develop standards for sustainable abalone farming for the newly established Aquaculture Stewardship Council.

Peter has also taken an interest in aquaculture and fishery sector development, policy and planning. His contributions have helped to enhanced shaping policy and strategy in South Africa, Namibia, Angola and Botswana.

In South Africa, he has prepared major reports on aquaculture sector development for the Department of Trade and Industry, DAFF, the Water Research Commission and various provinces. These contributions have helped to shape South Africa’s National Aquaculture Strategy which was recently approved by cabinet.

He holds the research portfolio on the council of the Aquaculture Association of Southern Africa, and is an honorary member of the Abalone Farmers Association of SA. He is also a member of the World Aquaculture Society and the International Institute for Fisheries Economics and Trade.

Peter has led the development of management plans for the Eastern Cape abalone resource, national guidelines for abalone reseeding and ranching, the Northern Cape Province Fishing and Mariculture Sector Plan (jointly with Warwick Sauer) and a fishery management plan for the Okavango Delta.

He co-led (with Warwick Sauer) an MCM funded “Economic and Sectoral Study of the South African Fishing Industry” which was used to inform the medium-term fishing rights allocation process. He also sits on the DAFF Abalone Fishery Working Group which provides management advice on the resource.

Arising out of his academic research he has published 55 peer-reviewed articles, seven books and edited proceedings, three book reviews, and many and varied conference and workshop papers.

Actively involved in the processes of industry and national legislation, he has also written several contract research and consultancy reports. He also writes opinion pieces, popular columns and is regularly interviewed on topical aquaculture and fishery issues in the media.

Peter referees papers for peer-reviewed journals and has served as a grant application reviewer for the NRF, research foundations in the USA and New Zealand as well as for THRIP and the Water Research Commission. He remains actively involved in conferences, workshops and study tours nationally and internationally and has delivered several guest lectures.

He has been the external examiner of several Phd and MSc theses at UCT, UWC, NMMU, WSU and some Australian universities.

At Rhodes he has supervised 20 Masters and four PhD. He is currently supervising a further five Masters and two PhDs.

In addition to his research, teaching and administrative responsibilities  he has served several terms as Head of Department from 2001 to 2009 and promoted the development of the DIFS Rural Fisheries Programme (RFP), in partnership with the RFP programme manager, Qurban Rouhani. He is also the Director of Envirofish Africa, a consulting unit operating under the auspices of Rhodes University.

It is my great pleasure to invite Professor Peter Britz to address us.

Last Modified: Wed, 19 Nov 2014 12:25:08 SAST