African Journal of Marine Science

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The 2005 KwaZulu-Natal sardine run survey sheds new light on the ecology of small pelagic fish off the east coast of South Africa

JC Coetzee, D Merkle, L Hutchings, CD van der Lingen, M van den Berg, MD Durholtz


Despite much public awareness surrounding the annual migration of sardine Sardinops sagax northward along the east coast of South Africa in winter each year, relatively little research effort has been expended to improve understanding of the ‘sardine run’. For this reason, a  dedicated multidisciplinary survey, timed to coincide with the annual sardine run, was conducted off the East Coast in June and July of 2005. The major objective of the survey was to estimate the biomass of sardine off the East Coast during the run, and to compare this with biomass estimates collected during previous surveys conducted in this area during the late 1980s when the South African sardine population  was at a considerably smaller size. We also collected data on the distribution of sardine and other small pelagic fish species and their eggs, the biological characteristics of sardine during the run, and data on the hydrography (temperature and currents) and lower trophic levels (phytoplankton and zooplankton) of the region. Results suggest that the biomass of sardine off the East Coast in winter remains relatively small and consistent, regardless of overall sardine population size. The narrow continental shelf to the east of Port Alfred, which is  dominated offshore by the fast-flowing warm Agulhas Current, constrains the amount of suitable habitat for sardine and other clupeoids such as anchovy Engraulis encrasicolus, West Coast round herring Etrumeus whiteheadi and East Coast round herring Etrumeus teres, and hence precludes these species from attaining a high biomass in this region. Additionally, primary and secondary productivity levels are much lower than elsewhere on the western and eastern Agulhas Bank off the south coast of South Africa, suggesting that the sardine run is not a feeding migration. A previous hypothesis that the run is mainly a result of an expansion of the distributional range of these fish as conditions become favourable in winter due to sporadic cooling off the East Coast is also not entirely supported by results from the survey. It is suggested that a migration for the purposes of spawning off this coast when conditions become favourable is a more likely incentive for sardine to undertake this arduous journey, despite increased predation and poor feeding conditions.

Keywords: anchovy, hydroacoustic survey, round herring, sardine run, spawning migration

African Journal of Marine Science 2010, 32(2): 337–360

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