When sardines don’t run

2013-09-08 06:00

The failure of this year’s annual sardine run off the KwaZulu-Natal coast has hit the local tourism and fishing industry hard, with operators fearing that a few more bad years may kill off one of the province’s key tourism cash cows for good.

And while the impact is being felt mainly in KwaZulu-Natal, Wild Coast operators say the sardine biomass off the Eastern Cape coast is dwindling and may only have a few years left.

This year’s sardine festival between Port Edward and Scottburgh run by South Coast tourism went ahead without the usual millions of silvery guests of honour, with no nettings reported to the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board this year. And locals are counting the cost.

The no-show on the KwaZulu-Natal coast follows a progressively smaller sardine biomass each year, said netter Demetre Stamatis. His nets have stayed dry this season, losing him about R100 000. More worryingly, he says, is the fact that he cannot employ the usual 30 to 50 casual workers he hires each year for the four-week sardine season.

“Netting is just one part of my business. Think about the 30 to 50 people I normally employ every year and their families. There are 14 or so licensed operators, all of whom didn’t put nets into water, so there is a big knock-on effect. There are a lot of people out of jobs this year,’’ he said.

An operator, he says, can make R100 000 off about 120 tons of fish caught in a good year. These are sold on to retailers on the Durban market.

“This will put some of the guys out of business. There are guys who ... have spent money but gone back empty-handed, having spent money on staff and fuel,’’ he says.

Cape St Francis commercial fisherman Kevin Bremner is one of them. He has been netting sardines off both provinces for 39 years and made the trip north with his crew of 60 from a village near Port Shepstone, They work for him every year.

“This year cost me R60 000. I still had to take my people on and get to KwaZulu-Natal to wait for the sardines. You don’t know if you’re going to net, but if you’re not there with a boat and nets when the sardines hit, it’s too late,’’ says Bremner.

“There were only a couple of us out there this year actively looking for the sardines. Everybody else was waiting for us to net. This has hit us hard. Over the past 10 years, the pilchard biomass has been depleted by the move of boats from the West Coast to Mossel Bay. They’re fishing the Aghulas Banks, where the sardine migration starts from. The biomass is now depleted, that’s the source of the problem,’’ he said.

Rob Nettleton of Offshore Africa Port St John’s says the dwindling sardine biomass will simply be wiped out.

“We probably only have a few more years to show it off and document it. The tourism side of the sardine run doesn’t match the commercial fisheries aspect when it comes to the amount of money involved and jobs created. One of nature’s most amazing events and one of the last gatherings of oceanic predators may end up being completely destroyed unless government comes up with stricter measures to ensure the biomass is protected,’’ he says.

KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board spokesperson Debbie Hargreaves says it’s too soon to say why the sardines didn’t make land this year.

“I’ve been with the board since 1972 and this is the first time it has happened that not a single sardine has been netted off the KwaZulu-Natal coast,’’ she says.

“There hasn’t been a massive impact yet as there was a little bit last year and the sardines beached in Durban one of the years before. Those who did come to see the sardines did leave very disappointed.”

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