The Sardine Run
What is the Sardine Run? The sardine run is a seasonal movement of fish and predators along the Eastern Cape coastline to the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal, South Africa.
Is the Sardine Run a migration? “The largest bio-mass migration on the planet” For many years this description was appended to the sardine run, however the phenomenon of the sardine run is still not fully understood.
Some research suggests that sardine run comprises a separate stock, that spawns near Park Rynie on the KZN South Coast. Others think of the sardine run as simply a movement of fish that are driven or pulled east by wind, seasonal currents and upwellings – a small percentage of the Agulhas Bank stock that is not technically migrating.
The graphic (inset) shows a satellite image from 29th June 2017. Fluctuating warm water gyres in the mighty Agulhas current, pull cooler water along the coastline and bring pockets of sardines up from the Agulhas Bank spawning grounds. The satellite image shows water of about 20 degrees Celsius from East London to Port St Johns. Reports from this time were of scattered bait-ball activity in all of those areas.
These nearshore counter currents arise from up-welling along the coast between Port Alfred to Port St. Johns. Further movement past Waterfall Bluff near Mboyti is believed to depend on a break-away eddy from the Agulhas current, allowing further NE movement of sardines along the Durban South Coast – The Waterfall Bluff gateway hypothesis.
By the time the sardines reach the South Coast of KwaZulu Natal, shoals of differing sizes tend to come through in pulses, that are further concentrated by predators; dolphins ,birds, sharks and whales following the shoals.
Migration or not and semantics aside, there are many complex factors that contribute to a good or bad sardine run year.
What is the history of the Sardine Run? The sardine run was an event traditionally associated with the Natal South Coast (Port Edward to Durban), when locals and fishermen eagerly awaited the seasonal arrival of sardines and associated game fish in June and July.
The earliest reference we can find to the sardine run in Durban is from 1853. The Natal Mercury reported: “… on Tuesday the 2nd August 1853, a shoal of mackerel chased by sharks and other large fish, took refuge close to shore. This stranding of fish has not been remembered to have occurred beforehand.”
In the 1930’s and 40’s, Indian, purse seine fishermen made a living off the sardine and shad (Pomatomus Saltatrix) catches. Operating from the shore with wooden boats between Durban and Port Edward there were three companies with almost forty boats at Durban’s Vetch’s Pier alone. Unable to compete with better equipped netters that arrived in later years, their operations became confined to the Durban area, where only one boat remained by 1982.
At about the same time, sport fishing was becoming popular and local pioneers of rock and surf techniques used hand-made tackle; cane rods and flax lines to target the gamefish and sharks associated with the sardine run. Sometimes the sardine shoals would beach as the sheer number of fish trapped against the shore would deplete all the available oxygen and suffocating fish would be left stranded, unable to escape the falling tide. This free bounty from the sea would see people from all walks of life, rushing into the surf with nets, buckets, shopping baskets, even shirts and skirts, in a frenzy that became known as “sardine fever”.
Another early mention of the sardine run can be found in The Blue Meridian by Peter Matthiessen. During their expedition to film the great white shark in 1969 they heard news that “…Durban’s beaches had been closed, due to the shark hoards that were pursuing great shoals of mackerel close inshore; the nets off the beaches were catching as many as 72 sharks in a single day. In Natal it was the southern winter, the water was colder, and among the species in the nets was the great white shark.”
Tim Wallett, in his book Shark Attack and the treatment of victims in Southern African Waters discusses the terrible impact of the shark nets during the run: “Every year the intensity of the sardine run varies, as does the distance which the shoals travel from shore. If sardine shoals move along the coast more than one kilometer offshore few, if any, sharks are caught in the nets. When shoals swim through netted areas hundreds of sharks are meshed.” “…the most impressive sardine run undoubtedly took place in 1971. Over 1000 sharks were removed from the nets in ten days. Many nets could not be located for several weeks and the number of sharks which decomposed in them is unknown.”
Thankfully the Natal Sharks Board is now removing the nets during the sardine run. Unfortunately they continue to use lethal methods to “protect” beaches for the rest of the year. Gill nets and drum lines are the weapons of choice, despite the non-lethal protection options that are now currently available. As a government subsidised organisation The Natal Sharks Board continues to operate with impunity as a shark fishery, much to the dismay of many concerned South Africans.
How has the sardine run changed over the years? In his personal history ‘A Fisherman’s Tale’ published in 1986, Joe Mara discusses the sardine run at length: “For many years the sardine runs along the Natal Coast followed a set pattern. The shoals were usually sighted off the Bashee River mouth in the Port St Johns area around the 8th or 9th of June, and given good weather would reach Durban by about the 25th of the month.”
“But from 1936 the pattern changed. The shoals began arriving later and good runs were more unpredictable…“ “Then, over the last 10 years or so [1975 -85] the runs have got progressively worse, which has resulted in the popular the belief that a good run is dependent on the temperature of the water which, it is claimed, should be in the region of 19 degrees Celcius”
He then goes on to express concerns over the shark nets and cites the absence of predator fish and sharks, to drive the shoals inshore as a probable cause for the decline of the South Coast sardine run.
Mara remembers 1954 as: “One of the earliest and best runs ever recorded in Natal waters ” “On Monday, June 2nd, 1954, word reached Durban that an enormous shoal of sardines had passed Port Edward and was expected at Port Shepstone the following day. This unusually early run was attributed to the light winds which had prevailed for several weeks, and also to the large numbers of sharks and gamefish which had driven the shoal close inshore.”
The last major sardine run to reach the South Coast in recent years was in 2002, with some huge shoals making their appearance off Isipingo, Scottburgh and Warner Beach and a few shoals reaching Durban by the 21st of June. Ironically 2003 was the first year that Hibiscus coast tourism went all-out marketing the sardine run. “The annual run is unique and as a market, virtually untapped in South Africa,” said Robbie Naidoo, a spokesman for Tourism KZN. Since then the netting on the South Coast has been sporadic to say the least although some catches were reported in 2005, 2015 and 2017. Netting in 2018 and 2019 were by far the best sardine runs in recent years and this has led many to believe that the Sardine Run may be returning to the South Coast. This trend seems to be holding true with 2020 and 2021 reporting huge volumes of fish passing the Wildcoast. We have high hopes for 2022.
There are many theories for the decline of the sardine run on the South Coast; the shoals passing offshore, changes in the currents, illegal fishing, over-fishing, loss of predators and climate change are all possible factors.
If you visit the South Coast in June and July you may still get lucky and witness some shoals being netted, but if you’re serious about experiencing the sardine run for yourself you must look further south and spend time on a boat!
Where is the best place to see the Sardine Run? So the joke goes: “If you want to experience the sardine run – you’ll be doing all the running!”
Many dive charter companies now make their own migration to the Eastern Cape to set up temporary bases on the Wildcoast and take people out in search of sardine related action. Expeditions are run from as far south as Port Elizabeth, up to Mboyti, just north of Port St Johns.
Rather than doing all the running, our advice is to choose your location based on your available dates, and wait. You have to put in the time and effort to maximise your chances of finding good sardine action. Most packages include at least 5 days on the water, where you’ll spend between 6 and 8 hrs at sea. Think of it a safari at sea where each day you never know what to expect. Some days can be slow while other days can only be described as mind-blowing.
What is the best time to see the Sardine Run? This is probably the thousand dollar question! As a natural phenomenon relying on complex interrelation of currents, weather and animals, the run can be very hard to predict.
As a general rule the action moves from up from the south, so if your dates are early, May to June, look to Port Elizabeth and East London. From June to July look at Coffee Bay, Port St Johns and Mboyti.
Once again the best time is the time spent on the water, so spend as much time there as you can !
What is there to do while you wait for sardine action? Spend eight hours a day at sea anywhere in South Africa and you should experience something spectacular, but the waters off the Wildcoast during the sardine run months are teeming with life, so just get out there and expect the un-expected !
The dives during your sardine run are totally dependent on the nature of activity on the day. The predators associated with the sardine run should all be in the area waiting for the shoals to arrive. Some days you may be in and out the water 20 times on snorkel or scuba, other days you may find stable activity, on quiet days you may want to explore the local reefs and wrecks.
What whales are associated with the sardine run? Bryde’s whales are the species most associated with the sardine run, sleek and fast they are able to keep up with the other predators and will lunge feed through shoals of sardines with amazing precision. The winter months also herald the arrival of thousands of humpback whales to our coastal waters. Although unrelated to the sardine run, the whales use the same currents to travel north to their calving areas and the sheer numbers passing each day is spectacular in itself. Please note that a permit is required to approach whales closer than 300m. Any whale watching done during the sardine run must obey local regulations.
What exactly is a bait-ball? The action on the sardine run is often on the move, as predators chase the shoals of fish in an attempt to round up pockets into a bait-ball.
The lateral lines of fish are highly sensitive to the slightest change in water pressure, ensuring that when one fish in a shoal moves the rest react. The effect can be mesmerizing. A glittering mass of fish that appears to react as a single fluid organism responding to it’s environment; pulsing, scattering and reforming, a living entity in itself.
Once a pocket of fish is isolated and surrounded by predators the action may stabilise as a bait-ball is formed. Dolphins circling the shoal, can be observed blowing bubbles to concentrate the fish further and divers will often hear a “battle cry “ as a dolphin attack is launched.
Sharks may come up into the shoal from below or seemingly appear from nowhere, while cape gannets dive in from above like missiles whenever the shoal is pushed close to the surface – the low frequency thud as they hit the water, alerting even more predators to area.
Gradually the fish become lethargic as oxygen in the surrounding water is depleted and the predators are able to pick off every last sardine at their leisure, leaving only the glitter of falling scales as evidence of their existence.
What is the natural / un-natural history of a South African sardine? A vital commercial catch globally the sardine (Sardinops Sajax) is the most studied pelagic fish on the planet.
In South African waters, the majority of sardines spawn during the southern summer months on the Agulhas Bank – the wide and relatively shallow continental shelf off the most Southern tip of South Africa. The majority of sardine eggs and larvae are then transported by currents up the west coast as far as Namibia, while a smaller percentage moves east along the southern Cape coast and into Eastern Cape waters. Juvenile sardines then aggregate into dense shoals and slowly make their way back to the spawning grounds where they reach sexual maturity at two years. Female sardines may spawn repeatedly, releasing up to 27,500 eggs per spawning event. Sardines can live upto 5 years and reach a size of 25 cm. However 3 years and 20cm would be the average expectancy.
Sardines are filter feeders, and may be seen swimming en-mass with their mouths open as they strain food from the water with their finely-meshed gill-rakers. Sardines feed on both phytoplankton and zooplankton forming an important link in the marine food web, by transferring the energy provided by plankton to larger predatory fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.
As South Africa’s largest commercial fishery in terms of landed mass, some 100 000 tons are currently caught annually, of which less than 10 % are caught in the Eastern Cape and only a few 100 tons in KwaZulu Natal.
By 1970 the west coast sardine fishery was in a state of collapse from over-fishing. Careful management of the fishery during the 1980s had shown some recovery by the 90’s, however the reduced pelagic fish stocks on the west coast have forced many predators (and the fishery) to move south and east in pursuit of their catch.
The Penguin colonies that appeared in Simonstown and Betty’s bay in the 80’s attest to this southern movement of predators. While penguin breeding pairs currently stand at less than 10 % of their former population, the fishing industry faced its own challenges as shifting fish stocks and increasing fuel costs forced several companies to relocate their plants to Mossel Bay and focus on the eastern sardine stocks.
Summary of all things sardine run: The sardine run is a totally wild, unpredictable event but when everything comes together the sardine run is the most spectacular wildlife spectacle on the planet; dolphins whipping the ocean surface into whitecaps, thousands of birds diving, whales lunge feeding through shoals of scattering fish. In these moments time becomes meaningless, as you witness this amazing play of life and death unfolding.
If you are looking for a real African experience and adventure diving at its best, you’re unlikely to be disappointed!
Join a Sardine Run Tour in 2022:
This text has been compiled from various different sources and personal observations. It is intended to serve as a popular guide only. While every effort has been made to keep the information accurate and updated, it should not be seen in any way as a scientific text or reference. Historic pictures are from ‘A Fisherman’s Tale’ by Joe Mara, published in 1986.
Copyright: Oceans Africa 2018