Mastering Fish Identification: A Comprehensive Guide for Aspiring Marine Enthusiasts

Mastering Fish Identification: A Comprehensive Guide for Aspiring Marine Enthusiasts

By Yonela Sithole

Participants using the CFWIO books during the fish identification training and EAF-Nansen survey in Mozambique. Photo Credit: Dr Peter Psomadakis (SAIAB Research Associate)

In September 2022, the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity (NRF-SAIAB), a national facility of the National Research Foundation (NRF), published the highly anticipated five-volume book titled Coastal Fishes of the Western Indian Ocean (CFWIO). This comprehensive book serves as a valuable resource for identifying fish species found in the coastal waters of the Western Indian Ocean, up to depths of approximately 200 meters, and covers an area from the Red Sea to Cape point, to Kanyakumari in the east and south to St Paul and Amsterdam Islands.

The book offers detailed keys and diagnoses for families and genera, accompanied by species descriptions, black and white illustrations and colour photographs. Notably, the book features a key to fish orders, which adds an intriguing aspect to its content, setting it apart from the previously widely used field guide for the Southwestern Indian Ocean, Smiths’ Sea Fishes.

Between the 9 and 19 May 2023, the EAF-Nansen Programme of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) organized a training session on “Basic Taxonomy and Marine Fish Identification” in Mozambique. In support of this capacity-development program, the NRF-SAIAB Managing Director, Dr. Angus Paterson, generously donated three sets of the CFWIO, which proved instrumental in enhancing participants’ ability to identify marine fish species of the region.

Following this training exercise, the books were subsequently transferred to the Research Vessel Dr. Fridtjof Nansen for use as reference guides during research surveys conducted in Mozambique (24 May – 24 June) and Tanzania (28 June – 30 July). This marked the first-time use of the CFWIO in a training and research survey programme in Mozambique and Tanzania. The survey recorded possible new species and new geographical records for mozambique – READ MORE HERE (pg.22). The use of this book in the fish lab during the surveys greatly facilitated species identification, providing detailed illustrations and a glossary of identification key terms to assist every user. This guide was highly appreciated by every user during the Mozambique survey and we do not doubt that those conducting the Tanzania survey also appreciated the guide. Additionally, the books will serve as valuable resources for future surveys in the Western Indian Ocean.

Nonetheless, as the IsiXhosa proverb says “Akho nzwane ingenasiphako”, (“No mistake goes unnoticed”), a few taxonomic errors were noted in some of the identification keys. Such errors were anticipated given the extensive collaborative efforts involved in the book’s production, with contributions from over 100 individuals. However, all errors identified during the training course and surveys have been documented, and these will be rectified with the help of the authors of the respective families. Moreover, an online version of the book is to be developed and will be regularly updated with continual discoveries of new species and as new information becomes available, ensuring the book’s ongoing accuracy and usefulness.

Therefore, we invite the users of the CFWIO book to actively participate in this endeavor, by noting any taxonomic errors they come across and/or by suggesting any areas for improvement. Your valuable feedback will contribute to the continuous refinement of this work, ensuring its effectiveness for future readers and researchers. Together, we can enhance our understanding and appreciation of the rich marine life of the Western Indian Ocean.

We encourage you to reach out to us at NRF-SAIAB. For further information and other queries about the future work of the CFWIO, please contact: Dr Yonela Sithole (

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