Africans net a flurry of food

Sardines: For a few weeks each winter, the waters off South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province are alive with millions of tiny fish.

July 06, 2002|By John Murphy | John Murphy,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

SCOTTBURGH, South Africa - Just after dawn, beyond the breaking waves, the ocean blackens and bubbles like a pot of boiling oil.

To the untrained eye, the dark mass chugging up this Indian Ocean shoreline could be dismissed as the shadow of a passing cloud.

But to the people living along South Africa's east coast of sugarcane fields and towering beach resorts, the strange sight means only one thing: The sardines have returned.

Like the swallows flying every spring to Capistrano or the monarch butterflies wintering in Mexico, millions of the slim silver fish make an annual migration to the shores of South Africa's KwaZulu-Natal province each June and July.

For about four to six weeks, long ribbons of fish stretch for miles along the coast, followed in the air by plunging gannets and other sea birds, pursued in the water by copper, black tip and spinner sharks, bottle-nosed dolphins, killer and humpback whales, and even the occasional African fur seal.

The sardine run is a massive parade of marine life that South Africans often call "the greatest shoal on Earth." There is some truth to the claim, scientists say.

"We don't think there is anything that matches the fish swimming so close to shore with the number of predator species moving along with them. If there is, I don't know about it," said Sheldon Dudley, a biologist for the Natal Sharks Board in Durban, which monitors the run.

The enormous shoals of sardines, Sardinops sagax, travel up the coast from their normal habitat near the southern tip and western coast of South Africa.

Once thought to be part of spawning migration, the sardine run, scientists now believe, is the result of some fish expanding their range to the KwaZulu-Natal coast during the winter, drawn by the cooler water conditions.

The activity in the water is rivaled only by the human frenzy on shore, where fishermen scramble to haul in their nets laden with sardines and residents scurry to the beach eager to buy up their catch by the crate-full.

"It's like a ritual," explained Ebrahim Kalil, as he walked briskly down to the water at Scottburgh public beach with his family on a recent morning. His son carried a fishing rod and net, prepared to catch some sardines on his own.

Sometimes, if the waves are strong enough, the sardines move in so close to the beach you can scoop them out of the water with your bare hands.

"That's when the fun starts. You just come and grab it," Kalil said, excitedly. "The people go crazy. The people go mad."

The madness started early on a recent Sunday morning when radio stations announced that massive sardine shoals had been spotted near Scottburgh. A local sardine hot line, which offers regular updates on the exact location of the run, also predicted a good day. "There's a heck of a lot of activity out there," the announcement said.

Teams of fishermen were the first to heed the call. They lined the beach with their pickup trucks, crates, nets and speedboats, awaiting the telltale signs of the sardines: a band of black, bubbling water.

How do you catch sardines?

"Just watch us," offered Mike Gradwell, the bearded manager of a sardine netting team from Jeffreys Bay, South Africa.

Gradwell blew a whistle, directing his workers to push a motor boat into the water. With the engine roaring, the boat leapt over the tumbling surf and steered toward a shimmering band of sardines less than 50 yards off shore. When the boat reached the shoal, workers dropped a long net, encircling the fish in a wide arc before speeding back up on to the beach.

Gradwell's whistle sounded again.

"Get a line! Get a line," he screamed, ordering his teams to start pulling in the net.

To pull in a full net of sardines is to enter a tug of war with the sea. More than 30 fishermen held on to the rope, leaned back and marched backward onto the beach. But the sea appeared to pull back just as hard. As each wave receded, the net rope tightened, sending Gradwell's team tripping forward back in the ocean.

This is fishing by sweat and muscle. Work starts in the hours before dawn and ends when the last fish are sold in the evening. It can be a foul business of rope burns and chilly mornings spent waist-deep in the ocean. But in the poor black villages that dot KwaZulu-Natal's coast, it might be the only steady employment many residents see all year.

"It's just about money. I've got a family to feed. I'll be back next year if I still can't find work," said Bunny Khumalo, 31, who was laid off six months ago from his job at a Toyota assembly plant in Durban. He found a job with Gradwell's crew last month.

Inch by inch, Khumalo and the other fishermen teased the net closer to shore. When they grew tired, they sang, establishing a steady rhythm with every tug on the rope.

Anyone on the beach - from tottering old men to the youngest child - was welcome to grab hold of the ropes and help pull the sardines up on shore. When the green net emerged from the water, the sardines wriggled wildly, making the sound of rain hitting a tin roof.

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