South Africa faces a decline of cormorants

07 August 2017


Five species of cormorants are known to breed in South Africa, of which three are marine and endemic to the Benguela ecosystem of Southern Africa. The global population of the two species of cormorants, Cape cormorant and Bank cormorant has dropped by nearly 50% since the late 1970s and are now regarded by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) as endangered.

The breeding numbers of cape cormorants have decreased from about 107,000 pairs in 1977–1981 to 57,000 pairs in 2010–2014. Whilst the Bank cormorants decreased from 1500 pairs in 1978-1980 to 900 pairs in 2014–2016. 

Furthermore, the populations of the two cormorants that compete with fisheries for prey, namely the Cape and Bank, have decreased substantially, whereas those of the two species that do not do so, Crowned and White-breasted, have remained stable in the long-term. The white-breasted cormorant P. lucidus utilises marine and freshwater environments in Southern Africa and farther North on the African continent. The long-tailed (reed) cormorant M. africanus is a freshwater species and also occurs farther North on the continent.

The Cape Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Capensis), breeds at 53 localities between the Orange River and the Eastern part of the Eastern Cape.

Majority of the decline occurred after the early 1990s off the North-Western coast of South Africa, between the Orange River estuary and Dassen Island. This is thought to have resulted from displacement of the main prey of Cape cormorants (anchovy and sardine) to the South-East coast. Cape cormorants are breeding in increasing numbers at mainland localities in the South, for example at Stony Point, Knysna Heads, Robberg and Tsitsikamma National Park.

The Bank Cormorant (Phalacrocorax Neglectus) breeds at 37 localities in the Northern and Western Cape Provinces and West of Cape Agulhas. Extinction of the colony at Lambert’s Bay and large decreases between Saldanha Bay and Dassen Island coincided with a shift to the South-East of rock lobster, an important prey item in South Africa. Numbers at the Southern colony of Stony Point have however increased.

Some of the conservation measures taken include the protection of their breeding habitats from disturbances during breed and the establishment of elevated breeding platforms in colonies such as, Vondeling Island.

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