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Historical marine fisheries databases now available online

By Jock Currie, Lara Atkinson, Wayne Goschen (SAEON) and Colin Attwood (UCT)

The SAEON Egagasini Offshore Node has announced the online release of an exceptional collection of historical marine fisheries data. The historical fisheries databases, a result of a collaboration between the University of Cape Town (UCT) and SAEON, are now freely available to the broader science community.

A few years ago UCT historian, Professor Lance van Sittert, discovered some interesting historical catch-return sheets in the Cape Archives and showed them to his colleague, Associate Professor Colin Attwood. Recognising their value, Prof. Attwood enrolled the help of students and a records company (GeoGraph cc) to digitally capture thousands of valuable records that had slipped institutional memory.

These re-discovered records provides unprecedented insight into historical fishery dynamics in South African waters and provide baselines against which ecological changes during the last century can be measured.


The databases provide insight into historical fishery dynamics in South African waters and baselines against which ecological changes during the last century can be measured

Gilchrist's legacy

The existence of these data is largely due to the remarkable efforts and scientific rigour of Dr John D. F. Gilchrist, the Cape of Good Hope's first official 'Marine Biologist', who arrived from the University of Edinburgh in 1896. Gilchrist quickly set about developing a network of fishery officers based at active 'harbours' between Lambert's Bay and East London. The officers were instructed to send in monthly summaries of the numbers of all fish landed at their harbour or slip-way.

At the same time he convinced the government of the importance of acquiring a suitable research vessel if they wanted to promote industrial fisheries that would help feed the rapidly developing country. The vessel would conduct research surveys to map the fishery potential of offshore waters, thereby demonstrating the best localities and the potential profitability of an offshore fishery to private investors.

The newly commissioned research vessel arrived from Glasgow in 1897 and Gilchrist set sail, documenting in remarkable detail the fauna encountered during extensive field surveys. Although a lack of funds put a halt to the offshore surveys in 1905, they re-commenced with another vessel and in deeper waters in 1920, covering grounds from Namibia to Maputo.

Two sets of historical data

Once the data were digitised, Professor Attwood, together with Dr Lara Atkinson of SAEON, guided the efforts of an ex-student and colleague, Jock Currie and Dr Wayne Goschen (the SAEON Egagasini Node's data manager), as they set about the task of preparing the data for input into databases. Hundreds of hours were spent on updating the taxonomy, verifying records, correcting mistakes, documenting peculiarities and lifting coordinates of stations from geo-referenced charts. In the end, two databases were born.


Kingklip caught in a survey trawl onboard the HMS Pickle in 1920 (Fisheries and Marine Biological Survey Report No. 1, 1920, Cape Times Ltd, Government Printers)

The first, the "historical research survey database" contains the records from scientific surveys that were conducted aboard the marine research vessels of the time, the Pieter Faure (1897-1904), the Pickle (1920-1930) and the Africana, Schipa and Palinurus (1931-1949). These data were captured from published government reports that document the fisheries and oceanography-related investigations in South Africa during those periods. Biological records were collected by a plethora of gear types, including various trawl nets, seine nets, shark nets, plankton tow-nets, dredges, lobster pots and hand lines.

The second database, the "historical catch return database" contains commercial catch data, which include monthly harbour returns (1897-1906), monthly trawl landings (1921-1960) and daily linefish returns (1922-1935) from the western and southern Cape. The harbour returns were captured from tables in the same scientific reports alluded to above, while the trawl and linefish landings were digitised from archived catch return sheets that had been collected at most active harbours along the South African coast.

Find the databases here

Further details on these datasets can be gained from their documentation at the following URL.

The databases and scanned copies of the original material from which the data were digitised, can be accessed at the following URL, once users have created a login account and registered their details.

In order to ensure a comprehensive understanding of the limitations of these datasets, we strongly encourage users to consult the readme documents and the scans of the original material, prior to making use of these data.

Please send us your feedback

We trust you will find these valuable documents and databases as fascinating as our team has and encourage feedback on their use. Contact details and methods of feedback are provided in the readme files.


Example of trawl catch records from the 1900 survey conducted from the SS Pieter Faure (Report of the Government Biologist, 1900, Department of Agriculture)


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