• 25 June 2012 | SAAMBR

What are sardines?

A shoal of sardines (Sardinops sagax)

Sardines (Sardinops sagax) are small silver fish that are also known as pilchards. They filter feed by straining tiny plants and animals (plankton) from the water. Short-lived and fast growing, they grow 0.60mm per day and reach 23cm in length within two years. They do not live longer than four years.

Pilchards reach sexual maturity in their first year. They have a long breeding season that stretches from September to February. The females each produce many thousands of eggs from which only one female and one male larva needs to reach maturity to keep the population stable.

Where do sardines come from?

The fish are netted in their thousands

Sardines are found mainly on the Agulhas Bank off the Southern Cape Coast and along the adjacent West Coast. They form huge shoals in the upper layers of the ocean. They are associated with cold upwelling of nutrient-rich water that occurs in shallow coastal areas.

Each winter large shoals of sardines move northward along the East Coast into southern KwaZulu-Natal in a narrow band of cooler water that exists between the coast and the warm Agulhas Current. This phenomenon also occurs in California, Peru, Chile, Japan and Australia with the same or similar species.

Sardine fever – why?

The Sardine Run is an annual phenomenon in KwaZulu-Natal. It occurs primarily in the winter months of June and July. It can trigger a curious condition in people who experience it - known locally as 'Sardine Fever.' Groups of seine netters travel up and down the coast in search of the elusive little fish and ordinary people of all shapes and sizes net sardines with anything that can hold a few fish – buckets, shirts, skirts, hats – anything goes!

Why all the excitement?

The annual migratory route followed by the fish

Copper, blacktip, dusky and spinner sharks join gamefish such as geelbek, shad and garrick, while dolphins, seals, gannets, cormorants and the occasional penguin all accompany the shoals. Around 20 000 common dolphins and up to 100 000 gannets may follow the shoals. Bryde's and humpback whales also join the feast.

Where do they go to after the Sardine Run?

It is believed that the sardines that are still alive move offshore into deeper water and may gradually move south.

Economic and social importance

  • Pilchards make up 23% of the world’s food catch
    • 100 000 tonnes caught annually in Western Cape
    • 4000 tonnes caught annually in Eastern Cape
    • 700 tonnes caught in KwaZulu-Natal
  • Creates thousands of jobs and sustains many coastal communities in the Western Cape
  • May be canned or ground into fishmeal
  • Dive operators, fishing charters, hotels and B & Bs along the KZN and the Eastern Cape coasts rely on the sardine season for income during the winter months
  • Fishermen flock to the beaches towing their boats or on foot in search of gamefish – the related expenditure on tackle, bait, accommodation and food are a boost to the local economy
  • The KwaZulu Natal Sharks Board removes the shark nets as the shoals move up the coast to reduce the catch of sharks. Bathing is at your own risk during the sardine season

The sardine run is hugely beneficial to fishermen

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