The Clanwilliam sandfish (Labeo seeberi) is one of the most enigmatic indigenous fishes in South Africa, even more so than its river mate the Clanwilliam yellowfish which is praised by fisherman across our country. Sandfish ‘live’ in the Olifants/Doring River system in the Western Cape and where it once thrived in schools of ‘thousands’ that engulfed the riverbed on upstream migrations to spawn it has now become so scarce that it’s an oddity to merely a few dedicated scientists, fisherman and land owners that spend time on these riverbanks. They are still abundant in large sandy pools, but their numbers have declined drastically and a recent IUCN Red List assessment on the species placed it in an ‘endangered’ category.

Scientists and CapeNature have already started with conservation efforts to protect breeding sandfish populations – Photo by Riaan van der Walt

Endangered is an understatement though, as suitable habitat is rapidly disappearing due to drought, increased water abstraction, the threat of new dam walls in their waterways, alien predatory fish eating their offspring and believe it or not, humans actively clubbing spawning fish. No sandfish has been detected in scientific surveys of the Olifants River since 2000 and the Olifants population is thought to be extinct. On the other hand, Doring River breeding populations may have become fragmented due to drought, old farm weirs and water abstraction; so whatever’s left of these fish may actually be bordering extinction.

Juvenile sandfish previously collected in a Doring River tributary before it dried out were transferred to resilient pools higher up in the river and many of them survived, growing to a bass-proof size. It will be endeavouring to achieve, but the Saving Sandfish project will repeat this process this year and in future create a safe haven area in the river by building a weir to prevent bass migration into the sandfish protected area and landowner consultation to reduce water abstraction above the weir.

Dr. Bruce Paxton and Dr. Jeremy Shelton of the Freshwater Research Centre (FRC) have been working on several projects to try and save the sandfish and they are currently working on one called Saving Sandfish [supported and endorsed by project partners: CapeNature, Endangered Wildlife Trust (EWT) and the Department of Environment and Nature Conservation (DENC)] for which the FRC received some funding. My passion for fish (as a scientist) and interest in fishing has drawn me to the sandfish and this project.

I searched for a very long time before finding sandfish in areas where one could potentially target them by sight on fly. Coaxing an ‘eat’ from these fish on fly is not simple and sandfish may be a better bait angling species. Nevertheless, sandfish live and breed among Clanwilliam yellowfish and sawfin and by protecting the riparian zone to rehabilitate the species automatically conserves its neighbours, which are prime angling targets.

To find out more about Saving Sandfish, or to contribute in any way please contact Dr. Jeremy Shelton on: jeremy@frcsa.org.za

Adult sandfish – photo by Riaan van der Walt