Algoa Bay Conservation
The St Croix Island group, including Brenton and Jahleel, is utilised by huge numbers of bird species. St Croix is home to the largest breeding colony of African penguins in the world. These birds, endemic to Southern Africa, are endangered and the population in our bay lost 70% within 7 years. They went from a high of 60,000 individuals down to the current number of 22,000, roughly half of the entire world’s population. Bird Island also has a population of breeding African penguins but the main species found on this island is the Cape gannet. Numbering 250,000 birds, this island is known as the largest gannetry on the planet. The Bird Island group has a small islet named Black Rocks which has 6,000 Cape fur seals breeding on it. Both islands are seeped with rich cultural and natural history as they have been utilised for food and supplies since the first Portuguese explorers rounded the Cape in 1488.
Both islands were targeted for bird meat by ships passing the bay but it was soon discovered that African penguin eggs were actually a highly tasty treat and became a delicacy. Egg collecting throughout the 19th and 20th centuries was so extensive that penguin numbers dropped to a shocking one thousand individuals in 1937. Guano was also collected from both islands to be used as fertiliser and gun powder until 1955 on St Croix and until as late as 1989 on Bird Island. This was extremely disruptive to the birds but more importantly it robbed them of important nesting material.
Algoa Bay was declared by BirdLife International as an Important Bird and Biodiversity Area (IBA) in 2001, because of the globally threatened and vulnerable species, and plenty of other birdlife, that make the islands in the bay their home. Apart from African penguins and Cape gannets, we also host the African black oystercatcher, both white-breasted and Cape cormorants, kelp gulls, swift terns, Antarctic terns, and roseate terns. As well as the visiting pelagic species of albatrosses, shearwaters, skuas, petrels and terns, which make this bay truly incredible. The islands in the bay are of considerable importance as they are the only islands along a 1,777 km stretch of coastline between Cape Agulhas on the West Coast and Inhaca Island in the tropical waters of Mozambique. And several studies have pointed out the need to protect boundaries of species distribution range or ecosystems as these are the most likely to be modified by climate change.
Common dolphins can be seen in pods of up to 2,000 as they chase shoals of fish around and create bait balls (providing an easy feast for many other animal species). Humpback dolphins can also be spotted close in shore but have much smaller family groups, with the maximum number of 12 in a pod. Then there is the illustrious killer whale or orca, which usually makes an annual appearance in our bay providing spectacular entertainment, sometimes even hunting.We see humpback whales anywhere between June and early January as they make their way up (and back down) the East coast to their warm breeding grounds off Madagascar. Southern right whales are seen between July and November as they enter the safety of the bay to either give birth or mate. Our resident Bryde’s and minke whales can be seen year round as they breed and feed in our waters (mainly on sardines and anchovies and highly associated with the sardine run). The sardine run is a natural phenomenon that passes our bay every year. Thousands of sardine schools can be seen from March until June being rounded up by African penguins or common dolphins in to a tight baitball. This ball of fish, which rises near the surface, is then made available to predatory seabirds such as gannets, cormorants and terns. The ball of fish is also made more easily available to other predators such as seals, sharks, and big game fish. The feeding frenzy can last for some time until it is all finished off with a Bryde’s or minke whale launching from below with mouth open wide to engulf the lot!
Algoa Bay is also home to a wide variety of sharks, some residential such as ragged tooth, pyjama and leopard shark, other are frequent and regular visitors to our beautiful bay, including bronze whalers and mako sharks. The area is a nursing ground to ragged-tooth, great white and smooth hammerhead sharks (which can be seen spread out in the bay in huge numbers in the summer months). Sharks are both prey and predator and they fulfil an essential and meaningful role in the functioning or our oceans as a whole and are indicative of ocean life. The bay contains many endemic species of invertebrates, seaweeds and fish, such as santers and red romans, five out of the 7 species of turtles, most of them highly threatened. And the diversity of soft corals and nudibranchs is among the richest of the planet. All of which makes our bay an incredible spot for scuba diving and snorkelling.
Along the coast we have the Alexandria coastal dune field, which is the largest in the Southern hemisphere. Stretching 50km, this 15,800ha dune field is fed by an estimated 375,000 cubic metres of sand per year from the bay and the dunes move from West to East at a rate of up to 7 metres per year. Proposed to UNESCO as a World Heritage Site by SANParks, this unique ecosystem is fragile and threatened by the invasion of alien Acacia spp. Also among these dunes lies one of the very few South African breeding sites of the rare Damara tern.
Along the shore of the bay lie two estuaries, the Swartkops river and Sundays river mouths. Estuaries are of crucial environmental and economic importance, for their biodiversity, but also as hosts of productive fish and invertebrate fisheries. They perform important functions, such as providing nursery areas for marine fish, conduits for species which move between ocean and rivers (e.g. some eels and invertebrates) and feeding and staging sites for significant populations of migratory birds. They also support a number of endemic species, many of which depend on estuaries for their survival. However, estuaries constitute one of the most threatened habitats in the country.
Algoa Bay represents all five major South African coastal types that need protection, i.e. rocky shore, sandy shores, offshore, soft sediments and estuaries. The Bird Island group is already part of the Marine Protected Area established by SANParks as part of the Greater Addo Elephant National Park, which was declared in 2004. And SANParks is currently in the process of extending this MPA to include the St Croix Island group as they are such crucial islands to so many species.
Algoa Bay is actually in very good health regarding the presence of one the largest cities of South Africa, 2 large industrial ports, and large fishing industries. The issues that this Hope Spot currently face are (1) pollution from untreated discharge of water from rivers, both in terms of heavy metal and plastic; (2) threats from chronic oil spills due to the traffic of large industrial ships (container vessels, cargo ships, etc); (3) potential for over-fishing, but more specifically local competition over the same resources between industrial fisheries and local breeding seabirds; (4) potential underwater drilling from oil and gas; (5) potential development of an oil refinery in Coega IDZ, in close proximity to the world largest colony of African penguins; (6) potential development of aquaculture in the bay
If you would like to be involved in the Algoa Bay Hope Spot initiative please contact Dr Lorien Pichegru.