Teamwork nets results for endemic fish

The CCR Projects has support from the department of water, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, CapeNature, Aurecon and many others. (Photo: Bruce Paxton)

The CCR Projects has support from the department of water, the Endangered Wildlife Trust, CapeNature, Aurecon and many others. (Photo: Bruce Paxton)

A collaboration of conservationists is working hard to change the threatened status of these species in a ground-breaking programme that they hope to replicate in other regions across South Africa. 

The Cape Critical Rivers (CCR) Project, winners of Greening the Future’s Biodiversity Stewardship Award in 2015, is building bridges between the imperatives of conservation and water resource management in the Western Cape. 

No single organisation can make this happen, however well-resourced they are, but through the support of the Save Our Species Foundation, the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Drylands Conservation and Source to Sea Programme, CapeNature, the department of environment and nature conservation in the Northern Cape, the Freshwater Research Centre and communities along the affected rivers, this team is getting it right. 

The CCR Project’s primary object-ive is to support the implementation of biodiversity management plans for two endangered freshwater species: the Clanwilliam sandfish and the Barrydale redfin, made possible with funding from the Mohamed bin Zayed Species Conservation Fund, Save Our Species, the Elizabeth Wakeman Henderson Charitable Foundation, Table Mountain Fund, the World Wide Fund for Nature and the Water Research Commission.

Possibly the biggest challenge faced by the project is that its outcomes cannot be achieved through legislation or law enforcement alone — success is only possible if the team understands the complexities of the local ecology, and then communicates this understanding to communities and government bodies and achieves solutions through stakeholder involvement. 

“Trying to change the way that communities engage with water has to be done with the greatest sensitivity, as every stakeholder has valid requirements and water is a scarce resource,” says the Endangered Wildlife Trust’s Christy Bragg, co-manager of the project with Bridget Corrigan. “We cannot accomplish anything in isolation. We need to speak to everyone affected by a river system, and work with them to gather information about what’s going on ecology-wise.” 

Bragg says that the two species are under threat by alien invasive fish that have been introduced to the river system over the years as a food resource for humans or for sport fishing. Eighty percent of the rivers in the Cape Floristic Region have been invaded by one or more alien fish species. These include predators such as small and largemouth bass, and bluegill sunfish, and the likes of the common carp, which destroys critical spawning and feeding habitats with its bottom-feeding behaviour.

“Introducing alien species nearly always has unintended consequences, and the more aggressive bass and other fish consume the sandfish and the redfin faster than they can breed,” she says. “They also prevent the two endangered species from migrating to their preferred breeding grounds.” 

A further challenge is that many of the rivers in the affected region are canalised for irrigation purposes, with old infrastructure that needs to be maintained or rebuilt, while alien tree species infesting river systems complicate matters by affecting the quality of the water. 

Launched in 2013, the CCR Project began by monitoring indigenous fish species and measuring water flows in the two affected river systems, the Olifants-Doring system and the Huis River. It gathered information from logging records and modelling flows with the assistance of Aurecon, and by engaging with local communities, farmers and municipalities to learn how they utilised the rivers. 

“Even though the Cape Floristic Region is an international biodiversity hotspot, the region is very irrigation-driven, with a lot of different stakeholders making use of the water system for various, very valid reasons,” says Bragg. “The project has had to balance these needs with understanding the hydrology of the region, and monitoring water flows to work out how best to balance the needs of all the stakeholders and the ecology of the river system.

“Monitoring the life cycles of the sandfish revealed that they were going up tributaries to spawn, but when they came back downstream, they would either die because the rivers were too low, or they would be eaten by alien fish. 

“The monitoring work that we’ve done has allowed us to identify sanctuaries for the fish and to move them there, all under the strict ethical translocation requirements described by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. Secondly, through a Water Research Commission-funded project undertaken by our CCR Project partner, the Freshwater Research Centre, a user-friendly tool was developed to monitor the Ecological Reserve in tributaries of high conservation value,” says Bragg. 

Regarding the critically endangered Barrydale redfin, Bragg notes that the CCR Project started its flow and fish monitoring work around this pretty town two years ago and thus was equipped to provide valid recommendations for meeting ecological flows — just as the Swellendam municipality was investigating and setting up a bulk water infrastructure plan for the Huis River.

“This meant that the community was already talking about better ways to work with water, which made it easier for us to start engaging with them about ways to protect the freshwater fish populations in the region.” 

The project has adopted four approaches to achieve its goals. 

It aims to improve water use efficiency in catchments that are of high conservation value, and to integrate legislative requirements such as environmental flow releases with current water user requirements.  

The team also works on critical actions required for species conservation, such as identifying high-risk dams that are home to populations of alien species, and working with local stakeholders around each of these dams to eliminate the aliens completely while providing alternative options. 

The rehabilitation of the Biedouw River, a critical breeding refuge for the sandfish, includes the removal of alien fish species and the implementation of a conservation translocation project to grow the numbers of adult sandfish in the river. 

This includes removing young sandfish from downstream areas where they will die from desiccation or predation at the end of summer and translocating them to their upstream spawning areas where they are more likely to survive. 

“We believe that these fish will be larger and stronger by the time they migrate to the main Doring River in the following year, improving their chances of survival,” says Bragg.

The team has embarked on awareness campaigns with local communities and farmers, including media campaigns in popular wildlife and conservation publications, and developing fish identification booklets to raise awareness of the importance of endemic and indigenous fish and the threats that they face. 

The team is working with the region’s farmers to improve the efficiency of their irrigation systems, which will see less water taken out of the river system, boosting the rivers’ sustainability and disturbing important fish habitats as little as possible. 

Bragg says that financial and logistical support from such a wide group of role players has seen the project gain “wonderful” momentum, largely through working in partnerships with passionate people and building a common vision. 

“We anticipate seeing great results within the next two years in the sandfish and redfin populations,” she says. “The results of this project are going to extend far beyond revitalising the populations of just these two species. Taking the model of community engagement, meticulous monitoring, and conservation interventions that we’ve created so far into other river systems where endemic fish are under threat is going to have a truly meaningful impact in the long term, for people and for the fish. 

“This success — and the potential for great results — would simply not have been possible without the open collaboration of conservation organisations, communities and government.”