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September 2016    Download the Entire Issue (PDF) Available to the Public Vol. 42, No. 9   RSS Feed for Undercurrent Issues
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Is the Sardine Run an Endangered Species?

from the September, 2016 issue of Undercurrent   Subscribe Now

The Sardine Run was first noted in 1853, but it took 150 years for it to become famous internationally. About that time, in 2003, Dr. Allan Connell warned that South Africa was in danger of losing the Run altogether because of overfishing.

This warning has been echoed by other experts, most recently by Mark Addison, who helped to pioneer the tourist industry that has grown up around the Run. At a talk he gave this past April, Addison called sardines "the butter of the sea" and noted that if we lose the sardines, many species that depend on sardines will also be impacted.

That the Run has had some off years recently has been well documented -- for instance, local South Africans have for years, gone down to the sea with nets and baskets during the Sardine Run and scooped up the fish from shore. (Think of the grunion run in Southern California.) For the first time since records have been kept, there were no reports of netted fish on beaches in 2013 and 2014.

But the fish returned last year. In a recent article in the African Journal of Marine Science, Pierre Fréon and his colleagues have offered another explanation for the recent decline in sardine sightings. They argue that increasing water temperatures might be altering fish behavior. Sardines are being driver deeper and further offshore due to warmer inshore water temperatures.

Mike Nortje of Pisces Divers agrees that overfishing is a major problem, but he also stresses that the iconic films that depict the Sardine Run were shot over several years (as were some of the most-watches videos on YouTube). He points out that while baitballs are definitely rarer than they have been in the past, there are still lots of baitfish in the water, and they regularly attract all of the large predators associated with the Run.

His view? For people who want to do a week on the water, "It's really a case of expectation management."

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