Home South African Back from the brink: How SA farmers are rescuing local sandfish

Back from the brink: How SA farmers are rescuing local sandfish

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Sandfish keep the rivers clean and the food web balanced. They also act as an umbrella species.

Sandfish are migratory freshwater fish found only in South Africa. Picture: Jeremy Shelton/Facebook

Sandfish keep the rivers clean and the food web balanced. They also act as an umbrella species.

Sandfish were once abundant and widespread across the Olifants and Doring River systems but have recently disappeared from Olifants. Their numbers in the Doring are in sharp decline, according to a recently published study.

Sandfish are migratory freshwater fish found only in South Africa. They can grow to over half a metre in length and have a pronounced down-turned mouth which is used to graze algae off rocks and to grub in mud and sand on the stream bed.

Sandfish keep the rivers clean and the food web balanced. They also act as an umbrella species, which means that protecting them indirectly protects river ecosystems and other species that inhabit them.

The study, conducted by authors Cecilia Cerrilla, a PhD student at the University of Cape Town and Charles L Griffiths, an emeritus professor also at the University of Cape Town, with a contribution from researcher, Jeremy Shelton, showed that sandfish numbers in a critical tributary had declined significantly over five years.

The study said that between 2013 and 2018, rangers from the Oorlogskloof Nature Reserve in the Northern Cape province surveyed the fish in the Oorlogskloof River, which found some sobering results.

The sandfish population declined by 92.6% by 2018, caused by a 99.6% decrease in the number of young sandfish.

Cerrilla said: “That by virtue of their migratory life cycle, sandfish move over long distances of a river at different life stages. To thrive, they need healthy, connected rivers that hold water year-round and don’t harbour alien species.”

Unfortunately, their migratory life cycle also makes them particularly vulnerable to human-linked impacts. Catastrophic unseasonal flows due to climate change during the 2013 spawning season likely catalysed this decline.

The study found that following the floods, the long drought that followed prevented population recovery. Adding to the problem was the presence of non-native black bass and bluegill sunfish.

Where these were found, sandfish were all but absent, effectively isolating the Oorlogskloof sandfish population from those in the Doring River and creating a population sink – a low-quality habitat which only contributes to a population’s decline.

These conditions, ubiquitous throughout the sandfish’s remaining range, have resulted in bringing the species to the brink of extinction.

“The biggest worry is the lack of juvenile and sub-adult sandfish in the Doring River,” Cerrilla said. “It indicates an ageing population with few if any, young sandfish surviving the precarious early life stages”.

In 2013, one of Cerilla’s colleagues accidentally came across a small school of tiny sandfish in the Doring River and discovered that they were still spawning despite the odds.

It catalysed the first sandfish conservation efforts, which were followed in 2018 by the Saving Sandfish Project. The goal was to better understand the most pressing threats to the sandfish and restore the species to sustainable numbers.

The sandfish has an impressive spawning strategy. It migrates dozens, sometimes hundreds, of kilometres annually to reach its tributary spawning grounds.

Protecting the species, therefore, requires collaboration with landowners whose farms and lands are crossed by the rivers that the sandfish inhabit.

The establishment of the project has led to six teams of local farmers along the Doring River catchment having transformed their off-stream farm dams into “sandfish sanctuaries”.

The safe stop-over habitats for juvenile sandfish are free of alien fish that would eat them.

Tributaries that once provided nurseries for young sandfish now dry up completely each year by the end of summer, so these fish are rescued en masse and relocated to the sanctuary dams – a vital step for sandfish to complete their life cycle.

Once sandfish reach a predator-proof size of around 20cm, they are released back into the wild.

They are tagged to allow for monitoring of how many survive and return to spawn in later years.

The first release took place in 2021, so data from this year’s spawning migration will give us an indication of whether our efforts have been successful.

In addition to providing sanctuary dams, landowners help to transport rescued sandfish, replace old in-stream fencing with sandfish-friendly fencing, provide accommodation for scientists, and even help with river monitoring.

The project’s approach has been unusual in partnering with farmers who directly influence the rivers. Several fruits and livestock farmers in the Biedouw River valley take water out of the river for irrigation.

The conservation project recognises that farming is an equally important part of the landscape and that it is only through collaboration that progress is possible for the mutual benefit of biodiversity and people.

Although the project is fairly new, it can still boast quite a few wins with thousands of sandfish successfully reared in off-stream farm dams, creating source populations for reintroductions for years to come.

Over 1,200 nursery-reared sandfish have been released back into the wild. Countless relationships have been forged with landowners, farmworkers and other stakeholders in the Doring River catchment, which will ensure the sustainability of the project in the future.

“Most importantly, the Saving Sandfish project has created awareness of the problems of river conservation in this arid region. And it acts as a rallying point for a community of diverse land-users who share a common goal: to protect the natural environment for the benefit of all,” Cerrilla concluded.

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