In response to concerns over elf/shad stocks, regulations were imposed on their capture during the late 1970s. Counter-intuitively, this sparked outrage amongst anglers, which prompted the 1979 Smith Commission of Inquiry. This proved to be a watershed moment. Not only did the Commission endorse ORI’s research that called for control over shad angling in KwaZulu-Natal (KZN), but it posed the question as to whether stocks in the Cape were part of the same population, and hence would also require protection. As Cape fishermen were vehemently opposed to any controls, it posed a real challenge. How to investigate this problem ?
Clearly tagging presented a unique opportunity to identify connectivity between fish in KZN and those occurring in the Cape. Consequently, Simon Chater and passed ORI Director, Rudy van Der Elst, assembled a small team of fishermen to undertake the “arduous and painful” task of tagging as many shad as possible in the shortest time. A month-long tagging expedition was launched in 1981 during which several hundred shad were tagged at Struisbaai, Plettenberg Bay, East London and subsequently also at Durban and Cape Vidal. The results were very convincing with several Cape-tagged fish soon recaptured on the KZN South Coast. While this appeared confirmation of the theory of one population, it did not convince too many fishermen in the Cape!
At this time there was a growing pro-conservation sentiment amongst South Africans anglers, stretching from Zululand to the Eastern Cape and beyond to Gordon’s Bay. We, at ORI, took advantage of this situation by introducing a number of joint initiatives such as catch return cards and the analysis of specimens caught during angling tournaments. We next raised the idea of fishermen tagging fish on behalf of scientists, thereby assisting research and having a bigger stake in the future of their own sport. The idea was immediately popular, especially amongst the big game fishing fraternity of the Western Cape. A draft programme was developed and submitted to Stellenbosch Farmers Wineries (SFW) who generously funded the tagging project for decades (22 years) under their Sedgwick’s Old Brown Sherry label, eventually in partnership with WWF. Fortunately for the project, the Sedgwick’s products did very well – a fact that we (obviously) attributed to the success of the tagging project!
The success of this citizen scientist project is evident from its continued existence since 1984. What is not always evident but which has been a most critical element is the commitment and dedication of so many people. Ranging from those first taggers and the SFW staff, to the record breakers and the scientific staff, to the present team, which keeps improving and adding refinements to this great collaborative project.