Environmental Biology of Fishes

, Volume 17, Issue 3, pp 161–183 | Cite as

Unique qualities and special problems of the African Great Lakes

  • George W. Coulter
  • Brian R. Allanson
  • Michael N. Bruton
  • P. Humphry Greenwood
  • Robert C. Hart
  • Peter B. N. Jackson
  • Anthony J. Ribbink


The African Great Lakes consist of large, deep rift valley lakes (e.g. Malawi & Tanganyika) and shallower lakes between the Eastern and Western Rifts (e.g. Victoria). They are a group comparable in size to the North American Great Lakes, but are old. Most are seasonally thermally stratified, and wind is the decisive factor that determines the annual cycle of cooling and mixing. Lakes Tanganyika, Malawi and Kivu are meromictic, with deep relict hypolimnia. Large magnitudes and time scales of periodic internal motion, where these have been measured, appear unique among lakes. These lakes harbour the world's richest lacustrine fish faunas, and the family Cichlidae provides the supreme example of geographically circumscribed vertebrate evolution. The lakes provide a unique comparative series of natural laboratories for evolutionary studies. Primary production is generally high, but in the deeper lakes standing stocks of plankton and of small fish species are low. These pelagic populations are characterised by very high P:B ratios. The fisheries are productive and of socio-economic importance. Large-scale mechanised fishing is not compatible with the survival of the diverse fish communities. Cichlids appear especially vulnerable to unselective fishing. Aquatic reserves might offer a means of survival for at least some communities. Various pollution threats exist. Because water retention times are long, extremely long for some deep lakes, and flushing rates are low, the lakes are vulnerable to pollution which would be long-lasting. Introductions of alien fishes have mostly had undesirable or disastrous results. While the faunas are one of the significant natural heritages of mankind, their conservation must realistically be linked to the legitimate development of the lakes for the well-being of the people who live there. Scientific value alone will not protect the lakes. Just as survival of African terrestrial wildlife in extensive reserves depends heavily upon tourism, so also might the cichlid flocks in underwater reserves. Greater interest from the international scientific community is needed to further rational development and conservation of these great lakes.


Meromictic Evolution Diversity Cichlidae Productivity Aquatic reserves Flushing Pollution Fish introductions Lake development Limnology Fishery management Conservation 


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Copyright information

© Dr W. Junk Publishers 1986

Authors and Affiliations

  • George W. Coulter
    • 1
  • Brian R. Allanson
    • 2
  • Michael N. Bruton
    • 3
  • P. Humphry Greenwood
    • 4
  • Robert C. Hart
    • 2
  • Peter B. N. Jackson
    • 3
  • Anthony J. Ribbink
    • 3
  1. 1.Department of Ichthyology and Fisheries ScienceRhodes UniversityGrahamstownRSA
  2. 2.Institute for Freshwater StudiesRhodes UniversityGrahamstownRSA
  3. 3.J.L.B. Smith Institute of IchthyologyGrahamstownRSA
  4. 4.Fish SectionBritish Museum (Natural History)LondonUK

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