News » Carp in South Africa – The good, the bad and the muddy

Carp in South Africa – The good, the bad and the muddy

By: Dr Josephine Pegg (SAIAB Postdoctoral Researcher)

SAIAB MSc student Nobuhle Mpanza with a rod
caught carp from the Orange River,
Northern Cape, South Africa.

Common carp (
Cyprinus carpio) first arrived in South Africa with the colonial British during the 18th Century. They were originally brought as an ornamental fish but enthusiasm for the species led to their rapid spread around the country by the likes of Mr C A Fairbridge, a member of the Cape Legislative Assembly who imported six carp from England with the purpose “to make our barren rivers a source of food”. The ‘barren’ streams around Cape Town are in fact home to a diverse indigenous fish fauna, regardless the imported carp thrived in the country’s climate. An article in the South African Advertiser and Mail from 1866 reported that Mr Ekstein of Rondebosch had procured three carp from England which were placed in a pond on his estate. After some time he netted 391 fish and offered to distribute 100 to “any gentleman having a place for their reception”. And so the species became established.

In 2020 common carp are ubiquitous in South Africa, present in the numerous small dams across the country as well as major river systems. Their presence comes at a cost. By foraging in the sediment carp increase turbidity and uproot plants. This has led for example to the virtual eradication of aquatic plants in Rondevlei in the Wilderness National Park, and subsequent reported declines in wildfowl populations.  Furthermore carp impact spawning of common native ground-nesting fishes such as cichlids. Conflict also exists between carp and other non-native sport fish, as the stocking of carp has ruined a number of trout and bass waters. In light of these problems legislation has been enacted to control movement of these fish, although this has not eliminated illegal stocking. All South African carp news is not bad news though. Carp angling is enormously popular with estimates of around 1.5 million participants, contributing R3.9 billion (£180 million) to the economy annually. Parallel to this catch-and-release sport angling, carp are also targeted by subsistence fishers. In Lake Gariep, South Africa’s largest impoundment, carp provide a livelihood to almost 500 fishers and their families.



SAIAB student Dinah Mukhari holds an acoustically 
tagged Groenvlei carp, which she is tracking as 
part of her MSc research on the population.

Groenvlei in Goukamma Nature Reserve is one of South Africa’s few natural lakes, and an example of the duality of carp in SA. An illegal stocking of carp in the 1990s and subsequent establishment of the species has led to concerning changes in the lake flora and fauna and the decline of a hugely popular bass fishery. The custodians of the lake, Cape Nature, have netted and enlisted the skills of local bowfishers in an attempt to remove carp, which has proved to be challenging, and not without some opposition from carp lovers. However as the country suffers the economic consequences of the Coronavirus pandemic the Groenvlei carp are proving valuable. The local municipality in partnership with NGO ‘Gift of the Givers’, is using the unwanted carp as a source of fresh protein in food parcels for the local community, thus providing a silver lining to Groenvlei’s carp-shaped cloud. 

For further reading:

Ellender, B. R., & Weyl, O. L. (2014). A review of current knowledge, risk and ecological impacts associated with non-native freshwater fish introductions in South Africa. Aquatic Invasions, 9(2).

This article was originally published in the Institute of Fisheries Management magazine called ‘Fish’, which was a special edition on invasive non-native species.