Helen Lockhart is the Two Oceans Aquarium Communications and Sustainability Manager. 

At the end of April this year I read an article by the Huffington Post titled “Young African Penguins Are Dying Because They Can't Find The Fish They Need” and my immediate thought was “Why are anchovies and sardines SASSI green-listed when these species are being overfished to the detriment of the penguins?”

Days later the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) announced that sardines (Sardinops sagax) had been moved from the green list to the orange list.

South Africa is one of the most biologically diverse countries in the world. We have an incredible diversity of fauna and flora that is truly unique and endemic to our country and our coastline. This fact is something we can be proud of. It is also something that should make us be even more vigilant about protecting our natural heritage.

One of the species that makes our coastline so unique is the charismatic black and white African penguin. Admit it, we all love these waddling, braying, squabbling birds. Some people enjoy dressing like them in tuxedos, others have walked 120km seven years in a row for them, and others come from all over the world to pay homage to them at their home on Boulders Beach.

African penguins at Boulders Beach. Photo courtesy Pank Seelan/Flickr (under licence CC BY-NC 2.0)

But sadly these endemic birds, living only off the coast of southern Africa, have been steadily declining in numbers, and in the last four years the decline has been dramatic. It is estimated that there are now only 23 000 breeding pairs left in the wild. South Africa is losing an iconic species at an incredibly fast rate.

There are various reasons cited for this, including the historic collecting of their eggs and the removal of their guano from the islands where they nest.  However, today, two of the main possible reasons cited are climate change and increasing fishing pressure. And both of these are impacting on the penguins’ main food sources – sardines and anchovies.

Photo by Geoff Spiby

Let’s talk about sardines – those beautiful silvery fish you may have seen in the I&J Ocean Exhibit at some point. I call them poetry in motion as they glide and flow through the water.

Sardines, a fast-growing shoaling species, were at one time the mainstay of the purse seine fishing industry on the west coast of South Africa. 

Photo by Helen Lockhart

Lamberts Bay was even home to a canning factory (today it is a potato processing factory). Then something happened – the sardines moved from the west coast to the southern Cape coast. One of the possible reasons cited for the move was that the ocean temperatures had increased and therefore the habitat off the west coast was no longer suitable for the filter-feeding fish.

“You have a choice – make it green. And the penguins will thank you.”

The move of the sardines not only had negative economic consequences for local fishers and fishing companies, but it also impacted on the lives of the African penguins which rely on sardines for food. Adult penguins are now forced to swim further and further afield to hunt which means that they leave their chicks for longer periods, exposing them to predators and the harsh African sun. Young African penguins are also struggling to find food as they head out to sea to hunt for themselves.

Photo by Chris Fallows

Besides the move, there has also been a consistent drop in the sheer numbers (biomass) of sardines and also the numbers of individuals reaching a catchable size (recruitment). While catch limits, access rights and permits have been in place for sardines, the stock is now considered fully exploited according to a recent scientific assessment by experienced fisheries biologists from organisations including WWF, UCT, the NSF and associated institutions.

Based on this assessment sardines have been moved from green (good choice) to orange (think twice) on the SASSI list. While there are no legal ramifications to this change it highlights to seafood consumers that there is a sardine crisis. And a sardine crisis means a food crisis for African penguins. Many of us humans can choose what we want to eat on a daily basis – not so easy for penguins. They would need to adapt their feeding patterns over many years, but time is not on their side given the current rate of decline in the population.

So, how can we – you and I – contribute to the survival of the African penguin? Pledge to think twice before ordering or buying sardines. Better still, you can avoid these little silver fishes altogether and choose seafood only from SASSI’s green list.  

SASSI has a range of tools which make it really easy to check the status of the species you are about to order or purchase: 

You have a choice – make it green. And the penguins will thank you.

Beautiful animals like the African penguin are vital for encouraging people to engage in conservation efforts that have a positive impact on their wider ecosystem. Photo taken by Grant Peters at SANCCOB.
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