East coast marine heatwave and large fish and shellfish washout

07 March 2021

The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries would like to caution coastal communities against collecting and consuming the washed up fish and shellfish. Some of the fish may have been dead longer than thought, some of the unfamiliar ones may be toxic and it is not clear yet whether the anomaly also resulted in “red tides” or Harmful Algal Blooms (HABS).

The marine heatwave and the marine species washouts are coincidental with a very large Agulhas Current meander (offshore deviation of the current). The Agulhas Current meanders are associated with complex, and drastic changes at the coast, with changes in temperature, ocean currents, water level and biochemistry of the water, subsequently leading to fish mortalities. During the earlier stages of the “marine heatwave,” reports were received of fish swimming away from warm water as well as of seaweed bleaching on parts of the coast. With cold-water intrusion, fish and invertebrates (shellfish) suffered thermal shock (froze) with many lying stunned in the shallows, some too weak to avoid being washed out on the shore.

The large anomaly or event observed in the Agulhas current along the coastline recently (February and March) resulted in a “marine heatwave” with water temperatures of 24°C and above throughout much of the East and South Coast. This was followed by upwelling of deep water with a 10-15°C difference between cold and warm water at the coast.

These meanders occur 4-5 times per year in the northern Agulhas Current system but only 1-2 times per year near Port Elizabeth as they weaken on their way South. Their occurrence is irregular.


Notes for the editor:

These oceanographic and meteorological conditions contributing to the recent marine heatwave, “cold snap”, washouts and mortalities of fish, invertebrates and seaweeds on the East and South Coasts were monitored and tracked by the National Oceans and Coastal Information Management System (OCIMS).

Using OCIMS developed tools applied to satellite imagery, the meander could be tracked, in real time, as it progressed Southward. The OCIMS provides decision support for the effective governance of South Africa’s oceans and coasts.

For media enquiries please contact:
Zolile Nqayi:
Cell: 082 898 648
E-mail: znqayi@environment.gov.za