Changing your name on a regular basis is not something one would consider a good life choice. But the gentleman of the sea appears not to mind. Through years of tracking we now know that the leervis of the South (including those on the West Coast, False Bay, Southern Cape and southern Eastern Cape) becomes the garrick of the North (Northern Transkei and KZN) each year when they migrate north on their winter spawning run. But it turns out that managing a double life is the least of this enigmatic fish’s concerns. For years we have witnessed the wholesale harvesting of this non-commercial fish once they aggregate in KZN, but now there is an even bigger, and far more sinister, practice that has come to light. In the sleepy Transkei town of Port St. Johns, on the banks of the Umzimvubu Estuary, the future of the garrick stock hangs in the balance.

I spoke with Dr Paul Cowley from SAIAB, who returned from Port St. Johns a couple of days ago and I asked him a few questions about his experience there.

Firstly, can you just explain why you were in Port St. Johns?

“Port St. Johns is one of our monitoring sites as part of the greater ATAP array around the South African coastline and I go there twice a year to download the data and service the equipment. We have three offshore receivers at Port St. Johns and one in the estuary that monitors fish moving in and out the estuary and then the offshore ones are part of the migration route.”

What did you see while you were there?

“I’ve heard about the jigging of fish in Port St. Johns but I didn’t quite understand how the guys were doing it. When I was on the estuary rolling over the receiver I saw these guys, about 10-15 of them, all with surf rods. What they do is cast out a big sinker and above the sinker they have anything up to 4 big treble hooks coming off their main line. They would cast it approximately half way across the estuary, let it sink to the bottom and then jam it hard, let it sink again and jam it hard, reel up the slack, jam it hard, so essentially jigging anything that might come in the way of that series of treble hooks.”

To be clear, this practice is entirely illegal. Part 6, Section 23 of the Marine Living Resources Act 18 of 1998 states: “No person shall engage in fishing, collecting or disturbing any fish, except for octopus, cuttlefish or squid, by the jerking of a hook or jig in the sea with the intention of impaling the fish thereon, also known as jigging or snatching”.

OK but how effective can such a technique be? Surely you have a better chance actually targeting a leerie with a lure or a livebait?

“Its clearly a very effective way of catching the fish because, over about an hour that I was on that site we saw 6 fish come out, 5 of which were big spawning adults and the 6than undersize juvenile. After finishing up my work, we decided to fish a bit ourselves. There were three or four other recreational boats also fishing. I was fortunate enough to hook a nice leervis, of about 10kgs  which I released.”

Paul with the adult garrick he caught. The hole below the dorsal fin is where he removed the treble hook

Jigging rig removed from a leervis’ back

He told me that only one other fish was caught between the other recreational anglers on that day. What is really concerning though, is that both of these fish were not actually caught by the lures he and the other angler were using. In both cases their lures got snagged on a treble hook which was trailing behind the fish. So these fish had been jigged and then broken loose and were now dragging a string of treble hooks behind them. A report from Craig Thomassen who is still there today said that in the past five days only seven garrick have been caught by recreational anglers in Port St. Johns and all seven of them were caught in this manner, snagged on the string of trebles they were dragging around.

Almost every adult leervis we have tracked migrating to and from KZN has spent some time in the Umzimvubu

So the impact of this practice is potentially massive. Paul estimates that between 20-40 fish are caught like this per day, and reported from locals that this can be as high as 60 when the fish really push in.

A sight seen all to often at Port St. Johns


National impact

According to Paul “the Port St. John area is an absolutely critical area for migrating garrick”. In the past seven years Paul and his team (myself included) have deployed over 80 acoustic transmitters in adult garrick along our coastline. While the migratory movements were well documented through decades of conventional tagging under the ORI cooperative fish tagging project, these acoustically tagged fish have provided critical insights into previously unknown details of their migration. One such detail is the importance of the Port St. Johns area. Paul explains “Almost every adult leervis we have tracked migrating to and from KZN has spent some time in the Umzimvubu”. He continues “It looks like [the Port St. Johns area] is a stop off point where they might regain some energy before moving on, or the area itself may be an aggregation area where spawning takes place. We haven’t confirmed that yet.” Geographically the Port St. Johns area is very significant. “If you look at the bathymetry along our coastline, from just south of Port St. Johns the continental shelf starts narrowing quite seriously and it creates a bottleneck, so all those migrating fish are close inshore as they go past Port St. Johns, and a lot of them use the estuary.”

These fish are extremely vulnerable during their spawning migration, and Port St. John is a critical hotspot for this species. Over the years Paul has received numerous reports of recaptured garrick with acoustic tags from Port St. Johns. Ironically, the day before heading up there he got a call reporting one such incident. It turns out that it was a leervis that I tagged on the reefs at Strand in False Bay, more than 2.5 years ago. This was the second time we had recorded this fish migrating to KZN from the Southern Cape since tagging.

So when we put all of these pieces together, fish moving massive distance, entering one specific estuary each year, not feeding there, yet being ruthlessly targeted by entirely illegal practices with potentially catastrophic consequences for the species, it is clear that the Umzimvubu needs attention. There needs to be better monitoring and enforcement. New regulations that close loop-holes and protect this species when it is at it’s most vulnerable within the Umzimvubu are essential. The consequences of this illegal practice will be far reaching for the leervis stock of South Africa. It needs to stop and needs to stop immediately.

Improved law enforcement is essential. There have been reports of DEFF officials conducting inspections in Port St. Johns recently, however there appears to be confusion even within the official ranks. Stories have emerged of recreational anglers having lures (paddle tails, jerkshads and bucktail jigs) confiscated because they were used for ‘jigging’, while others brazenly continue casting strings of treble hooks in the background. The bottom line is that the regulations are too vague and open to interpretation and enforcement is weak at best.

Management of resources is never an easy task, especially in a poverty stricken country where many livelihoods rely on natural resources such as fish. Balancing humanitarian needs and long term sustainability is no simple matter. But right now, the long term outcomes and the short term gains are on a collision path that can end only in a total stock collapse. If something is not done to curb this scourge, the gentleman of the sea’s days are numbered.