Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public domain
Credit: Unsplash/CC0 Public domain
“Drone fishing” is a relatively recent innovation in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Some recreational fishermen use personal drones to fly baited lines into hard-to-reach areas of water or to search for good fishing grounds.
Recreational fishing is a popular sport and pastime in South Africa, which has a coastline of 2,850 km. The most recent estimate of the number of land-based anglers is approximately 400,000.
The group of researchers that I am part of and who study linefish (fish caught on hook and line) have become aware over the last ten years of the growing practice of drone fishing. This was partly thanks to recreational fishermen sharing their concerns with us.
One concern is that increasing the number of enthusiastic fishermen and their ability to catch fish could have significant effects on fish stocks and other animals (such as birds) in coastal areas. Another reason is that drone fishing could intensify conflicts between groups of fishermen competing for the same species. Besides leisure, angling is the main source of income. protein and income for approximately 2,730 commercial fishers, 2,400 artisanal boat fishers and 30,000 artisanal land-based fishers in South Africa.
We agreed that this practice should be investigated, but we faced a challenge: there was very little oversight to provide data.
So we took an unconventional approach to our study. We used publicly available online monitoring to estimate the growing interest, global extent, and catch composition of drone fishing. This showed us that there had been a strong surge in interest (357%) in drone fishing in 2016. There were also worrying indications of a threat to species of conservation concern in South Africa. South.
We then consulted with commercial drone operators, legal researchers and others to get a bigger picture. Drone fishing has economic, political, legal, ecological and physiological implications. Based on this, we made some recommendations for further research and monitoring, and shared them with fisheries authorities.
The South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment subsequently published a public notice warning recreational fishermen that use of drones and other electronic devices is considered illegal under the South African Marine Living Resources Act.
Fishing drone companies that had already sprung up are now struggling to survive. They led the ministry to court seeking clarification on the legality of using drones for fishing. The judgment in this case, currently under appeal, will undoubtedly pave the way for the future management of drone fishing in South Africa.
Innovative research methods
Largely because we were homebound during the 2020–2021 COVID-19 pandemic, we collected most of our data via the Internet. We investigated social media platforms for groups dedicated to drone fishing and used Google Trends to track Internet searches for “drone fishing.”
The results indicated a 357% spike in interest in 2016, following the release of a popular YouTube. video of an angler catching a large longfin tuna on an Australian beach using a drone. Search volume increased to around 3,600 monthly searches, compared to an average of around 1,400 before the peak. The “Drone Fishing” Facebook groups had more than 17,000 members and 38,700 videos with titles including the term “drone fishing” had been posted online.
Online interest was mainly seen in three countries: New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
To get an idea of which fish species were targeted, we then viewed 100 YouTube videos posted by drone fishermen in these three countries. In New Zealand and Australia, the most frequently observed catch was red snapper, which is not a species of direct conservation concern. In South Africa, however, sharks accounted for the majority (97%) of observed catches, many of which are of serious conservation concern, as dusky shark.
Impacts of drone fishing
Having noted the interest and presence of drone fishing in South Africa, we sought to consider the issue holistically – its impact on:
- targeted fish and their habitats
- other animals of the coastal zone
- other people using the coastal area.
Drones equipped with cameras allow fishermen to identify ideal fishing habitats away from shore. Areas that fishermen could not previously reach are now open to exploitation. Even released fish are less likely to survive when caught further offshore. A large fish hooked hundreds of meters offshore is likely to suffer extreme exhaustion and physiological disorders and can be consumed by other predators.
The potential loss of fishing gear by drone fishermen is also a concern. It’s common to lose gear, either when getting stuck in rocky habitats or while fighting large fish like sharks. In either case, hundreds of meters of fishing line could remain in the ocean. In addition to polluting the marine environment, this debris threatens to entangle birds, marine mammals and turtles.
In South Africa, drone fishing is only accessible to wealthy fishermen. Increasing their catches could lead to conflicts with fishermen who depend on their catches for food or income.
It is also possible that sharing live information about fishing conditions via the Internet could increase concerns about the privacy of other public beach users.
Our 2021 paper noted that at the time, there were no specific regulations relating to drone fishing in any country, including South Africa. We have drawn attention to legislation that could be used indirectly to regulate this practice.
Fisheries regulation and management
Three of the paper’s co-authors were part of a working group for the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment. We shared the document with the ministry and in 2022 it took concrete steps on this issue for the first time.
The ministry published a public notice which explicitly prohibits drones and other remotely controlled vehicles for angling.
Companies that build custom fishing drones have been granted permission to appeal the court’s initial ruling on their request to ban drone fishing. The appeal has not yet been heard.
We hope that the end result will be better monitoring and management of South Africa’s recreational fisheries, so that resources are available to those who need them most.