The unprecedented effort to save one of Africa's most threatened fish

The sandfish breeds only in a few isolated spots in the Western Cape province. A large rescue effort is now underway to save it.

As winter begins in South Africa, the dry season ends, and rains return to the Western Cape province. Parched washes become streams again. Wildflowers bloom. And around August, Clanwilliam sandfish rush upstream to spawn en masse.

Or rather, that’s what they used to do.

These torpedo-shaped, silvery fish—which get their name from a town in the area—were once were so numerous in this southwestern corner of the country that their reproductive pilgrimages roiled the tributaries of the Doring, a major waterway that rises in the interior before flowing into the mountains of the Cape.

“There were so many sandfish they would make a wave,” recalls Sarah Fransman, who long has lived near the confluence of the Doring and a tributary called the Biedouw. “The whole school would stretch from one side of the river to the other.”

In those days, Fransman would eat sandfish, as they were so plentiful as to be part of the cultural landscape. She even still has recipes for them. But those days are long past.

Today, sandfish are endangered, so much so that they’re near the brink of extinction. Last year, fewer than 200 swam up the Doring and into the Biedouw to spawn, says Jeremy Shelton, a conservation biologist and National Geographic Explorer at the Freshwater Research Centre, in Cape Town. The Biedouw is the last known place where they undertake these reproductive migrations.

Sandfish (Labeo seeberi) can grow to two feet and mysteriously have the smallest scales of any freshwater fish, says Paul Skelton, a freshwater ecologist and professor emeritus at the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. Sandfish also have bottom-facing mouths for slurping detritus and algae on stream bottoms. (Their name in Afrikaans, onderbekvis, means “undermouth fish.”) They play an important role in their ecosystem as consumers of organic matter and as prey for a variety of native creatures, such as African clawless otters.

That predator-prey balance has been upset because North American sportfish have been introduced into the area in recent decades. These invaders are a serious threat, gobbling up young sandfish, says Shelton, who grew up in Cape Town “splashing in coastal rock pools and following crabs and tadpoles in a small stream behind my family home.”

Shelton says the sandfish’s plight “literally keeps me up at night… but there’s still hope.”

He teamed up with another National Geographic Explorer, Otto Whitehead, an independent ecologist and filmmaker who is no less passionate about conservation (and fish) in his native South Africa. The pair had met in 2013 while working on a film about another beleaguered endemic species, the Breede River redfin.

In 2018, Shelton and Whitehead founded Saving Sandfish, a project funded by the National Geographic Society to rescue young sandfish from the Biedouw and raise them in predator-free ponds until they’re about six inches long—large enough to better avoid being eaten—before releasing them back to their natal stream.

Saving Sandfish is an unprecedented freshwater conservation project for the continent. Already, says Skelton, who isn’t involved in the project, it has improved the survival prospects for this imperiled fish.

So far, the team has caught 15,000 juvenile sandfish and begun raising them in protected ponds with the support of Western Cape landowners. Since September 2021, the team released nearly 1,300 back into the Biedouw. The hope is that they’ll return to the Doring and migrate back upstream to spawn in the Biedouw the following year, Shelton says.

It’s possible that sandfish could be ready to spawn when they’re two years old. To find out, the conservationists inserted tiny tags into nearly a thousand of the fish, which will allow researchers to track their migrations and spawning behavior. These tags stay in the fish’s bodies for the rest of their lives and have an internal microchip containing a unique barcode that is recorded when it passes close to a special antenna.

Threatened fish

The Doring and the major river it eventually flows into, the Olifants, drain a vast region of the Western Cape, and are home to an unusually high concentration of unique and threatened species. Five of the 11 species endemic to the area are considered endangered or critically endangered.

These species, including the sandfish, have dwindled for several reasons. Recent drought years partially related to climate change have drastically reduced river flows. Researchers predict that the already water-stressed Western Cape region will experience further reductions in river levels as temperatures rise up to four degrees Fahrenheit higher during the next 50 to 100 years.

At the same time, farmers are extracting water to irrigate crops such as rooibos and plants to feed livestock. Another challenge are non-native, water-hungry trees—black wattles, eucalyptus, poplars—that have taken hold in the valley of the Biedouw and elsewhere. During the past decade, CapeNature, the regional conservation authority, has been clearing black wattle and poplar infestations in the upper Biedouw. But large areas of invasive plants must still be removed to help mitigate their drawdown of river waters, Shelton says.

On top of all this is the presence of those hungry sportfish. Beginning around the 1940s, anglers seeded the Doring, Olifants, and other nearby rivers with bass and bluegills, not realizing the ecological consequences of doing so. Within the range of the sandfish, today there are only a few streams without voracious exotic fish: Small stretches of the upper Biedouw and the nearby Oorlogskloof. Both are shielded from invasion by low, rocky waterfalls—and both are home to non-migratory populations of sandfish.

The only known remaining migratory population lives in the Doring, spending the summer in isolated, rock-bottomed pools. During the rainy reason, the Doring and Biedouw fill and resume flowing, allowing the fish to swim upstream to spawn and lay eggs. Until about 2010, when a decade-long drought set in, the Biedouw held significantly more water through the summer months, including in predator-free pools that the project’s protected sanctuaries are meant to mimic.

But today the Biedouw stops flowing around January, and dries up between February and May. During these months, young sandfish are easy pickings for bass and bluegills—or run out of water.

“Their life cycle is broken,” Whitehead says—hence the plan to release sandfish when they are big enough to avoid predation.

Connecting with local people

Working with local people and making them aware of the importance of sandfish to the freshwater ecosystem is key to the ongoing success of Saving Sandfish.

Whitehead and Shelton have approached Western Cape landowners and asked them to allow sandfish to mature on their properties in small ponds. So far, Saving Sandfish has established five such reservoirs on private land.

In late 2020, Whitehead, Shelton, and a rotating group of locals began capturing young sandfish from the Biedouw that had hatched just after the September spawning. They netted the fish and transported them in buckets to the reservoirs.

“Landowners take pride in their sandfish sanctuary dams, narrowing the gap between people and life beneath the surface and setting the stage for reimagining our relationship with water,” Shelton says.

One of those landowners is Lauren Bradley, who moved to the Biedouw Valley with her husband and two sons in 2017 to start Enjo Nature Farm, an ecotourism attraction, and give their boys a rural upbringing. When Whitehead and Shelton proposed raising sandfish on their property, Bradley was impressed by their sincerity. “I knew at that moment that we had to be absolutely wholeheartedly committed to this project,” she says, adding that the whole family has been helping with the sandfish rescues.

To date, Saving Sandfish has brought nearly 3,000 fish to the reservoir on the Bradley property. Nearly 500 at “bass-proof size” have been put back into the Biedouw, Shelton says.

“It’s a paradigm shift for the local communities to be aware of and concerned for the fish,” says Paul Skelton, of the South Africa Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity. “In that respect, Jeremy and his team have been terrifically successful.”

‘Disbelief, then joy, pure joy’ 

Saving Sandfish also supports and conducts scientific research. In September 2020, Shelton, Whitehead, and Cecilia Cerrilla, a doctoral student at University of Cape Town, finally documented sandfish spawning.

After many days of waiting, Shelton says he felt “disbelief, then joy, pure joy,” when they saw sandfish congregating and spewing forth sperm and eggs. These fish are “just so rare these days, and no one has seen sandfish spawning for decades,” he says.

Around that time, the team began filming sandfish with a 360-degree camera. “It’s transformed the way I see fish,” Whitehead says. This filming revealed, for example, the toll the migration takes, leaving marks and scars on their fine-scaled bodies. The conservationists also came to see that each fish has its own personality.

“When you spend time with them underwater, you quickly realize that these are individuals,” Shelton says. “Some seem youthful, playful, energetic. Others are calm and composed, almost zen-like, so comfortable and confident in the face of uncertainty.”

“Now I’m head over heels for sandfish—because I’ve met them,” Whitehead adds.

As part of her PhD thesis on sandfish, Cerrilla is conducting a survey of all their known populations, and she hopes to find more. Soon, she’ll scout other rivers to see if sandfish are still spawning elsewhere, including in the Tra-Tra, a tributary south of the Biedouw.

The Clanwilliam sandfish is “an ambassador for the whole river system in a way that no other fish is,” Cerrilla says.

“It represents the health of a whole freshwater ecosystem, and the connectivity.”

EDITOR’S NOTE: The National Geographic Society, committed to illuminating and protecting the wonder of our world, funded the work of Explorers Jeremy Shelton and Otto Whitehead. Learn more about the Society’s support of Explorers highlighting and protecting critical species. This work was also supported in part by IUCN Save Our Species, co-funded by the European Union.

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