Old habitats die hard

In this world life can’t exist without death. A new generation is born from an old one that dies. For every new year that begins, an old one ends. The present is but a fleeting second, a mere blip on the endless screen of time.
Issue Date: 11 January 2008

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In this world life can’t exist without death. A new generation is born from an old one that dies. For every new year that begins, an old one ends. The present is but a fleeting second, a mere blip on the endless screen of time.

The year that lies ahead is still beyond our grasp – the one that lies behind is all that really belongs to us. My grandson Tiaan and I have spent the last few Christmas holidays trout-fishing and hunting on the farm Dalmanutha, near Belfast. But we didn’t go this year – the farm has new black owners. It’s a thing of the past. But our memories are gold and we will cherish them for ever. From the past we gain not only memories but knowledge, and this makes it more valuable than the future, which is still just a dream.

T here are two sides to life – a dark side and a bright side; problems and opportunities. The quality of our life depends on what we do with the opportunities that come our way. iaan and I didn’t go on our intended tiger-fishing trip to Zambia this year either – although Gavin Johnson invited us to his beautiful lodge – the cost of diesel was just too high. Now we’ll probably never go. Tiaan’s family is emigrating to the US soon. But opportunities that lie ahead can still shape the future. few years ago, I had a taste of the wonderful fishing that Florida in the US has to offer, but I didn’t fish for tarpon, or for salmon when I was on the West Coast. Who knows, maybe I’ll visit and have another crack at it and use my opportunities better this time. I received a letter from a reader this week (he wrote to me privately and not through FW and I don’t feel free to publish his name).

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His letter took me back to those golden days around the dam on Dalmanutha, to where the big trout lurk in the depths and the shoals of minnow or gielemientjies, as we call them, frolic in the shallows. he letter related that our reader belongs to a small syndicate who have sole fishing rights to several dams in the Natal Midlands, where a healthy population of minnow and one of the “minor catfish species” occur. Because the dams are stocked annually with trout and one of the dams actually became overstocked at one stage, they feared the small fish would be decimated. After several seasons, however, to their surprise the minnow are now more plentiful than ever and the miniature catfish are frequently seen swimming in the open, proving the trout apparently had zero effect on them. A question of diversity his is exactly what we had found was happening at Dalmanutha.

We had been fishing the dam, which always had a healthy population of large trout between 1,5kg and 3kg, for a couple of years. The dam is also populated with minnow in large numbers. I regularly saw them swimming among the rocks along the bank. In December 2006 we stayed on the farm for almost a month and on most days I kept a trout or two to eat, or even more when I had visitors. As the abundance of gielemientjies intrigued me, I inspected the stomach contents of each and every trout I killed. In not a single one did I find the remains of any minnow prey. What I did find was that they specialised in specific prey items. In many fish the stomachs were tightly packed with snails. Others fed almost exclusively on dragonflies or damselfly nymphs and adults, while others contained mostly mayflies and their nymphs as well as other terrestrial insects like moths and beetles, but not a single gielemientjie. Our reader also made some observations about bass, and commented: “Another dam in the Ifafa area we stocked with Florida bass and blue kurper as fodder. The kurper ended up suppressing the bass population and later got out of control – we simply couldn’t control them by fishing.”

This is exactly the situation I’m experiencing at the moment. Near my home is small private dam where the owner allowed me to stock bass and later tilapia. I introduced the bass first as there was a small population of vlei kurper and abundant insect life, but after two seasons the bass became plentiful (I once caught 76 in three outings) and I saw no more vlei kurper. So I stocked it again with two species of tilapia (vlei and blue kurper).

Now, three seasons later, the blue kurper have multiplied and grown big. The bass on the other hand have dwindled significantly. If I now catch two or three little bass on an outing I’ve done well, but often I leave empty-handed. Similar patterns The same thing happened with bluegill and bass in SA. In the US the bluegill is the natural prey species of bass, but here the bluegill became over-aggressive and nasty. Where the two species have been stocked together, you invariably end up with a dam full of bluegill. In my dam the big blues patrol in packs, continually chasing each other. I can imagine that during the breeding season a gang like that could easily chase a single bass off its spawning bed and devour all the eggs. Our reader concluded: “I know there are only a few instances where indigenous fish species thrive where trout and bass share the same water with them, but doesn’t it cast a big question mark over the argument against alien species?

The argument that trout exterminate indigenous small fish species played a major role in motivating the termination of stocking trout in the Sterkfontein Dam near Harrismith.” I think his question is very valid and can only agree wholeheartedly with him, and in a previous issue I suggested that the yellowfish in the Vaal may benefit from the presence of bass, which hammer the over-abundant moggels that compete with the yellowfish. I’ve been an observant fisherman and professional wildlife ecologist my whole working life and I don’t think one should generalise about one species undermining diversity.

On Lake Tanganyika, Nile perch are blamed for the collapse of the lake’s fishing industry. I’ve been there and if a single factor has contributed, it’s the massive and unrelenting human fishing pressure. Research is not aimed at management, control doesn’t exist and so-called “breeding sanctuaries” are especially targeted. I think too much is being made of alien species and the biodiversity thing is becoming a craze. I’m not in favour of alien species, but trout, bass and carp have been here for a century or more and if they were as devastating as the new generation of conservationists want us to believe, our indigenous fish wouldn’t have survived. Most of the rule-makers are pen-pushers who just assume non-indigenous fish are the root of all evil, because everybody says so. By beating the species drum continuously they effectively divert attention from the fact that they’re not doing their real job – protecting the environment of the species they pretend to be so worried about.

Another reader who lives on the Vaal River apologised for not being in touch for a while. Their hospital is overflowing with people ill from contact with contaminated water. As a local doctor, he’s working around the clock. With a national debate going on about all the pollution in our rivers, the silence emanating from DEAT is deafening – they must be working on a new law against diarrhoea. Finally, I thank all my readers for their encouragement and contributions and I wish you all a wonderful new year full of opportunity. I wish Eskom would get their act together, and government would get pollution and crime under control, and for myself, a land-line that works. – Abré J Steyn Contact Abré J Steyn on 083 235 4822. |fw