The Sardine Run Collection

Browse & download a collection of underwater footage covering the annual sardine run shot on the East Coast of South Africa.

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About the Species

Sardines (Sardinops) are small pelagic fish that are globally distributed, but not commonly found in isolation. Although neither mighty nor particularly thrilling on an individual scale, sardines are behind some of the most grandiose underwater sensations: the sardine run. When hundreds of thousands of sardines spawn, migrate, and display schooling behaviour each year along the southern African coastline, one of the largest bait balls on earth assembles, attracting predators and instituting remarkable underwater encounters.

Biology

Physical Traits
  • Sardines are small pelagic fish with flat bodies that range from 15 to 30 centimetres in length.
  • They are covered with relatively large, shiny and reflective scales. The scales on their bellies are called scutes and are more robust, specialised scales that provide extra protection.
  • Their white bellies and dark-coloured tops are useful adaptations that help camouflage their bodies to avoid predators.
Reproduction and Lifespan
  • Sardines reproduce by broadcast spawning. Spawning is when female fish release eggs and males release sperm into the water column. The water column currents then transport the fertilised eggs to nursery grounds.
  • Different sardine populations spawn during different periods of the year. The South African sardine population (responsible for the famous sardine run) spawns early on from February until August.
  • Sardines reach maturation (ability to spawn and reproduce) rather quickly and participate in migration within the first couple years of their life.
  • Although Sardines can live up to 13 years and, in exceptional circumstances, 25 years, sardines usually do not live past five years.

Behaviour

Communication and Schooling

  • Sardines can be found in shoals, schools, and swarms.
  • A shoal is a group of fish, a school is when a shoal is unified in their swimming patterns, and a swarm is a highly organised grouping of fish that is synchronised in the presence of predators.
  • The famous sardine run in South Africa (performed by the Sardinops sagax species) begins with billions of sardines that spawn in the upsurge of the cool, southern waters of the Agulhas Bank.
  • The journey proceeds North up the east coast, where an abundance of predators gather to feast on the swarm. What occurs is a chaotic yet seemingly harmonic series of predator-prey interactions.

Predators and Prey

  • A sardines diet consists of plankton. They feed by filtering the water that passes through their gills.
  • Juvenile sardines consume phytoplankton (plant plankton), while adults consume more zooplankton (animal plankton).
  • Sardines are essential prey items to many species. In South Africa alone, sardine populations are essential for the diet of the African penguin, the Cape gannet, yellowtail, tuna, hake, the Cape fur seal, and multiple dolphin species.
  • Of course, humans rely on sardines, and we are their biggest predator. Small-pelagic species (including round herring, anchovies, and mackerel) comprise one-quarter of the world’s catch.

Viability

Threats and Climate Change

  • The most pressing threat for sardine populations is the impact of overfishing.
  • While overfishing is the most pressing, climate change might also have worrisome implications for sardines.
  • Warming sea surface temperatures are known to cause ocean acidification and a decrease in ocean oxygen concentrations. This inhibits growth in many species and results in smaller bone structures and overall fish sizes.

Conservation Status

  • Naturally, sardine and anchovy populations undergo large scale fluctuations. Currently, most sardine populations occur in concerning numbers due to overfishing.
  • The Atlantic sardine populations are in a dire state and have decreased 98% since 2006.
  • The Pacific Sardine fishery was shut down in 2015 and has yet to re-open.
  • In South Africa, sardines are the main target species for the small pelagic catch. The sardine fishery has been operating since the 1940s and has wreaked havoc on sardine populations, contributing to today’s depletion in the south African sardine populations.
  • In South Africa, sardines were historically managed as a single stock. However, there are at least two (potentially three) different populations. This caused unfit management regulations and unsustainable fishing practices that contributed to a depletion of sardine, particularly the east coast population.

Current Research

  • In a recent study, the past 66 years of south african sardine run were examined. They found that migration is occurring increasingly later in the year and has implications for fishing activities, tourism, and food security. The later occurrence is due to both changing ocean temperatures and the increase in mid-latitude cyclones.
  • Researchers studying food security among low-income households and securing nutrition gaps in impoverished communities identified sardines and canned fish as viable solutions. Sardines and canned fish sustainably supply essential nutrients (omega-3 fatty acids, proteins, vitamins, and minerals) for areas (such as the Pacific Islands) that struggle to meet dietary needs.

Charisma Factor

  • One of the captivating elements of the sardine run are the notorious Bait Balls. The shoals and swarms of sardines behave, perform, pulse, divide, and reform as one. The marginal water pressure alterations may cause one fish to move, triggering the rest to reciprocate.
  • The predators take advantage of this phenomenon. Dolphins cast “Bubble Nets” around the sardines to confine them. The bubbles and confinement also causes oxygen concentrations to diminish, slowing and exhausting the sardines.
  • The large “Bait Ball” of lethargic sardines precipitate the miraculous congregation of predators for their shared target of attack.
  • Sharks, Cape gannets, dolphins, and even divers congregate. The predators perform their striking feeding rituals while the gleaming sardine scales descend from the bursting bait ball, and divers spectate and become floored by one of the most spectacular migrations on earth.

Myths and Legends

  • A well-known French legend tells a tale of an 11-metre-long sardine found off the coast of Marseille in 1780 during a British attack on French grounds. In summary, a ship called the Sartine was poorly driven and blocked the port of Marseille. Out of exaggeration, the Sartine evolved into the grand 11 metre Sardine, illustrating the humour of the Marseillais.
  • On the Mediterranean coast, sardines are consumed both fundamentally and out of great pleasure.
  • Portugal celebrates St. Anthony’s day on June 13 (generally the beginning of the sardine run in the Mediterranean sea), where the Portuguese feast and sardines are served to celebrate.
  • Owing to a couple of innovative and determined Frenchmen (Joseph Collin and Nicolas Appert), tinned sardines were fabricated in 1836, and as locals described, “the seasons were fixed”. Preserving the quality, texture, and nutrition of sardines was a novel step toward food security, reducing food waste, and sustainable fishing.

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