SANCCOB activated following reports of over 100 Cape gannets oiled with suspected ‘fish oil’ on Bird Island in Algoa Bay 

On the morning of Sunday, 17 March 2024, the Southern African Foundation for the Conservation of Coastal Birds (SANCCOB) ranger for Bird Island in Algoa Bay reported at least 20 Cape gannets oiled with what is suspected to be fish oil. Together with the South African National Parks (SANParks) Rangers a field assessment was conducted. The field assessment revealed over 100 oiled gannets, some of which were heavily oiled and preliminary estimates are that at least 50% need to be rescued. The most compromised birds, presenting as underweight and/or heavily oiled have already been rescued and transported to SANCCOB Gqeberha, which has prepared its facility to receive the birds for stabilisation and subsequent washing and rehabilitation.  

The incident was reported to the South African Maritime Safety Authority (SAMSA) based Maritime Rescue Coordination Centre (MRCC), which activated the draft National Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Contingency Plan (NOWPRCP) alongside the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (DFFE), the South African National Parks (SANParks) and other stakeholders. On the 19th of March 2024, 24 oiled Cape gannets were transported from Bird Island and admitted to SANCCOB Gqeberha. SANCCOB Cape Town is currently on standby to deploy additional capacity to Gqeberha should the need arise. It is anticipated that more affected birds will be rescued in the coming days. 

This incident is the third occurrence of suspected fish oil affecting Cape gannets on Bird Island and has not been reported at any other colony. The first incident occurred in January 2023 where seven (7) Cape gannets were rescued, covered in what was suspected fish oil and again in January 2024, a further 15 were rescued, covered in the same suspected fish oil substance. What started as a minor concern has become increasingly alarming with a higher number of birds being affected. The substance appears as a yellow stain on the feathers and has a distinct fish smell. Affected feather samples have been taken for analysis and work is underway to try and determine the exact type of pollutant. 

Whilst not toxic to seabirds, fish oil disrupts feather microstructure and their waterproofing. The fish oil removes waterproofing qualities, so the cold water can penetrate the skin. The birds are unable to regulate their body temperature, making them more susceptible to hypothermia. In addition, they become water-logged and are unable to fly nor swim effectively and can drown. Birds that are unable to swim or fly will eventually die from starvation or dehydration. Affected birds in this condition need to be stabilised before undergoing a washing process and rehabilitated to restore feather waterproofing and overall body condition. The entire process of washing and rehabilitation takes a minimum of four (4) weeks for an otherwise healthy bird (no secondary complications) but can be longer. 

Cape gannets are endemic to South Africa and Namibia and found only at six (6) colonies worldwide; Possession, Ichaboe & Mercury Islands in Namibia, and South Africa, on Lambert’s Bay, Malgas Island and Bird Island in Algoa Bay. The species is listed as Endangered since 2017 globally and Critically Endangered in Namibia. Bird Island, where the oiled birds have been found, is home to 90,000 to 100,000 breeding pairs, thus the largest Cape gannet colony in the world.  

Monica Stassen, SANCCOB’s Preparedness and Response Manager, says, “SANCCOB is concerned that this is becoming a more regular occurrence. This is the third time that Cape gannets have been recovered on Bird Island with suspected fish oil contamination. At this time, we do not know what the cause of the contamination is, and we strongly urge management authorities to investigate these incidents. Cape gannets are an Endangered species and therefore we need to do everything we can to protect them. Even though fish oil is not toxic to seabirds it affects their waterproofing which can ultimately result in their death. We will continue working closely with government, industry, NGOs, and other organisations during this incident and ensure that plans are put in place to prevent this from happening in the future.” 

Statement from SAMSA: The South African Maritime Safety Authority is concerned by the reported oiled wild seabirds and has, together jointly with other relevant State departments and institutions, already taken action considered necessary and appropriate to both assist the evacuation and cleaning of the affected wildlife, as well as determination of the source of oil, so far believed to be ‘fish-oil’. To this end, the activation of the draft National Oiled Wildlife Preparedness and Response Contingency Plan (NOWPRCP) is intended as a joint effort towards management of incidents of this nature and shall remain active until the sources of the oil is established and dealt with in such manner as necessary and appropriate.”  
Sightings of oiled seabirds can be reported to SANCCOB Gqeberha on 041 583 1830 or emergency after hours on 064 019 8936. If you would like to contribute financially to the rehabilitation of the recovered gannets, please donate at and select ‘Gqeberha Cape gannets’.  

Media enquiries 

Monica Stassen | Email: | Phone: +27 21 557 6155 or 072 228 9206 

Ronnis Daniels | Email: | Phone: +27 21 557 6155 or 083 388 3762