Fish story from Lake Tana, the “Blue Heart” of Ethiopia

Here is Abebe Getahun's story from Ethiopia

Abebe Getahun (PhD), Associate Professor in Aquatic Biology, Addis Ababa University, Ethiopia


I got involved and fascinated in the study of fishes while I was in Eritrea studying the diverse marine fishes of the Red Sea. I was deeply impressed by the beauty and diversity of the coral habitats and its fish fauna of the coasts of Massawa and the beautiful adjacent islands. Forced to come back to Ethiopia, I reverted to the study of the freshwater fishes of Ethiopia. Staying at the American Museum of Natural History/ the City University of New York for my PhD studies and being enlightened by the very stimulating lectures and guidance by prominent systematists and conservationists, I was very much emboldened to continue my research in this fascinating group of vertebrates. Back home, one of the very appropriate niches I found interesting in Ethiopia was Lake Tana for two main reasons:

  1. Lake Tana borders Bahir Dar Town, a fascinating and beautiful town similar to that of Massawa, reminding me of my old memories and for which I have nostalgia. Bahir Dar, Lake Tana and its beautiful islands are melting pots for biological and cultural diversity and beauty and it is very difficult not to be captivated by them.
  2. More importantly, the lake is the largest lake in Ethiopia and consists of diverse species of fishes, two of which (Garra tana and Garra regressus) were, for the first time, described by my mentor and myself. The most dominant groups in this lake are the Labeobarbus spp. flock, world’s unique species flock consisting of 17 species that strive only in Lake Tana. Similar groups in Lake Lanao, Philippines have, reportedly, been decimated due to overexploitation. Not only do these fishes constitute a unique species flock, but also are migratory travelling every year during the rainy season to Feeder Rivers to breed. It is this breeding behavior and their role in the fisheries that made them vulnerable to unregulated fisheries. They are easily trapped and caught en-mass at the river mouths and after entering into the shallow and clear smaller streams. To make matters worse, Lake Tana is considered as development corridor and construction of a number of dams and irrigation projects are taking place on the feeder rivers. Therefore, finding viable solutions to this complex problem has been arduous and challenging for all of us working in the field. We have been working on multiple fronts to solve the problem and save these species.

One of the fronts has been to find innovative and scientific ways of breeding these species by availing the requirements for breeding (fast flowing water with currents, oxygenated water with gravels, etc) in man-made water channels and ponds. These trials are now going on with predicted success.

Another way is to reduce the fishing pressure by pushing hard for proper implementation of the fisheries proclamation and regulation in the region. With similar objective, we are also researching on developing alternative fisheries (aquaculture), by working on the hatchery and grow-out experiments on two aquaculture species (Nile tilapia-Oreochromis niloticus and African catfish-Clarias gariepinus) so that this technology is adopted by fishermen and farmers in the region and beyond.   

The third and decisive front is awareness creation among all actual and potential stakeholders (fishermen, development workers, administrators and policy makers). We have made several conferences and workshops targeting these different sectors of the society, and events like the world fish migration day have helped us convey our messages effectively.


During the first world fish migration event, we managed to organize, in addition to a conference, distribution of leaflets and banners, a parade within the town of Bahir Dar accompanied by Police Marsh that attracted the attention of thousands of the town’s dwellers.  That event and the preceding conferences and workshops, among other factors, have persuaded UNESCO to recognize Lake Tana as a Biosphere Reserve. This has been a great achievement and contribution to the conservation of the Labeobarbus spp.of Lake Tana.


This year, is the second World Fish Migration Day, we are planning to celebrate the day with more exciting events (see web site of the event) and we hope to reach so many thousands, who may not have been aware of these unique heritages and the danger looming over them.