Shad (elf, tailor, bluefish) are one of South Africa’s most popular angling fish and they are pursued by over 300 000 anglers every year. Their streamlined bodies are perfectly shaped for speed through the water and their silvery coloration, light beneath and darker above, helps them to blend in with the ocean.
Shad are widely distributed in the warm coastal waters of the Indian, Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. The South African stock is, however, distinct which means that we have the responsibility to look after the shad along our coast. Shad are found in sandy and rocky areas from the shore down to depths of 100m.
COMMON NAME: shad / elf / bluefish / tailor
Tagging studies have shown that shad migrate from the cool waters of the Western and Eastern Cape to KwaZulu-Natal each winter. This migration is associated with one of their primary prey - the sardines, which migrate to KwaZulu-Natal during the annual “sardine run”.
Shad breed in the warmer waters of KwaZulu-Natal from spring to mid-summer. Shad reach sexual maturity at one to two years of age, when they are about 25 to 30cm in length. Large female shad may produce up to two million eggs in one season, although most females produce about one million eggs each season. The eggs hatch after a few days and the pelagic larvae drift passively inshore of the Agulhas Current back to the south-eastern Cape, where they spend their first year living in large marine bays.
During their drift southwards the young fish have very little chance of survival as the sea teems with filter feeders and carnivorous zooplankton that thrive on gulping down small fish larvae.
As larvae, shad feed on small marine creatures drifting in the open ocean. Adult shad are voracious predators (piscivores), preying on small fish such as sardines, pinkies and streepies (karanteen). Their razor sharp teeth are able to tear quite large prey into shreds.
Shad hunt by sight and usually feed in shoals, in clear water, during the day primarily over sandy seabeds along the edge of reefs. Shad, in turn, provide food for other predators such as large gamefish, sharks and dolphins.
Shad can grow to 100cm in length and weigh up to 10kg. A large fish of this size would be about 10 years old, but, given the high fishing pressure along our coast, few manage it.
Shad have been caught since the early 1900s and there are records of huge shoals of shad being netted off Durban. Shad catches declined severely during the 1960s and 1970s, primarily because of overfishing. A detailed study undertaken by scientists at the Oceanographic Research Institute showed that a dramatic decrease in fishing effort was required to rebuild the stocks. To achieve this, a daily bag limit, a closed season and a minimum size limit were introduced. These limitations have been successful in rebuilding shad stocks to their present levels.
Bag and size limits, and closed seasons can be adjusted as scientists learn more about the biology of these fish and the status of the stocks. Shad are the most important fish caught in the recreational shore fishery along the entire eastern seaboard. They are also caught off skiboats, particularly in the south western Cape, and in treknets in False Bay.
WHAT YOU CAN DO TO HELP
There are a limited number of shad in the ocean. If anglers catch more than can be replaced by their breeding, over-fishing results. This results in fewer shad being caught and their average size becoming smaller. To prevent this, there are regulations to control the number of shad that are caught. These regulations ensure that everyone catches their fair share and that shad can continue to be caught in the future.
Obey the fishing regulations
- Minimum size limits give fish a chance to breed at least once before they are caught and protect the fish when they are growing at their fastest.
- Bag limits restrict daily catches so that there will be enough fish for everyone. Scientists work out how many fish can be harvested safely. This information is used to set a bag limit that restricts the number of fish caught per day. This prevents more successful anglers from catching great numbers of fish, especially when the fish are ‘on the bite’, rather leaving some behind for less successful anglers.
- Closed seasons protect fish during vulnerable stages in their life cycles. The shad closed season protects the fish at the peak of their breeding season.
Where available, fill in catch cards with accurate information about your catches and co-operate with fisheries officers or scientists collecting information on your catch.
These studies provide information about the number of anglers and the number of fish being caught. Scientists can tell the age of fish by counting rings in their ear bones (otoliths) and relating this to the size of the fish. The age that the fish start breeding and their breeding season are obtained by cutting open the fish and inspecting the state of maturity of their reproductive organs.
Research is also conducted on the diet of the fish. Scientists use all this information in computerised mathematical models to determine the most effective management options. The best options can then be drafted into regulations that are used to manage recreational species such as shad.
Tag and release your fish
Tagged fish can provide scientists with useful information about the seasonal movements of fish, their growth rates and in some cases, the size of the stock. They also give anglers an opportunity to become involved in an exciting research programme; taggers receive information about their tagged fish, if they are recaptured.
If you catch a fish with tag in it, read the tag number or remove the tag from the fish and measure the fish (from the tip of the mouth to the fork of the tail). Send the tag number (or tag), the type of fish, where it was caught (try to give a specific location), the date caught, the length and/or weight of the fish and your name, address and telephone number to: The Tagging Officer, Oceanographic Research Institute, P.O. Box 736, Durban, 4000.
Only catch what you can eat – don’t be greedy.
Shad lose quality, texture and flavour when frozen but are delicious when eaten fresh.
Van der Elst, R.P. 1988. A Guide to the Common Sea Fishes of Southern Africa (2nd ed). Struik Publishers, Cape Town.