The sardine run along the east coast of South Africa during the winter months of June to July is considered something of a phenomenon. No one really knows why the silvery shoals migrate so far up the coast against the warm Agulhas current of the Indian Ocean when they prefer the colder waters of the south Western Cape. It may be that they follow a band of cold water that upswells between the continental shelf and the Agulhas current along the upper east coast.
Sardines (Sardinops sagax), called pilchards in some parts of the world, are close relatives of anchovies and herrings. Shoals prefer cold water and the surface layer of the ocean where they live and reproduce. Sardines are filter feeders preferring plankton and tiny plants and animals. They reproduce rapidly reaching maturity in 2 years and grow to approximately 20cm (8 inches) in length.
The sardine run is a giant buffet for predatory game fish, dolphins and whales as well as seals, birds (gannets, cormorants and gulls) and humans. Some 200,000 tonnes of sardines are fished yearly along the Western Cape coast of Southern Africa. The fish are canned, frozen and even pickled and are an essential source of income for subsistence fishermen in the area.
Along the upper east coast of South Africa special licences are obtained to net the shoals and bring them ashore where they are usually sold fresh to the public. Each licence restricts the fishermen to a particular quota so as not to deplete the shoals.
Recreational and subsistence surf fishermen look forward to and take advantage of the game fish bounty that follows the shoals of sardines. Usually, “hard-to-land” game fish such as shark are easily caught using live sardine bait.
One of the many anglers revelling in the bountiful conditions was Vinesh Bhagwanpersad, who proudly showed off the Diamond ray he caught.
“It took me a while to land it...” he describes, “I initially brought it in but it was thrashing about with wings flaying so I decided to let it swim out some distance before I reeled it back. I did this a number of times to tire it out.”
Asked about the damage and trauma caused to the ray, Vinesh responded, “You have to know how to handle a ray. You cannot turn it over on its back because this will damage its internal organs. You need to be weary of the sting in its tail because it carries serious toxins. Rays do not have sharp teeth so you can put your hand in its mouth to remove the hook. The fish is traumatised a bit but they rarely die. We know this because we have previously caught tagged and released rays and other game fish.”
This year has been a significantly long sardine run on the upper east coast of South Africa. Whilst it took a little longer to arrive, once the sardine shoals were spotted they almost never seemed to end. This may be indicative of the changing weather patterns experienced throughout the world.
So if you are in South Africa on a holiday during June to August, try make a point of visiting the city of Durban on the east coast to witness what really is a natural wonder of our beautiful planet, the great South African sardine run.