OPINION | Scotty Kyle: Drone fishing - Illegal and unsustainable, as more fish "lost" than landed

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Stock photo of a drone flying.
Stock photo of a drone flying.
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Drone fishing significantly adds to the depletion of fish stocks that are not only part of our heritage and biodiversity but are also important tourism and recreational assets, writes Scotty Kyle.

For decades I worked for the KwaZulu-Natal Provincial Conservation Organisation, advising managers on matters including all aspects of fishing. I am a passionate angler and generally worked well with managers and fishermen to manage our inshore fish stocks jointly. Together we reduced fish death rates and minimised impacts on the environment while allowing reasonable, controlled fishing within the strict confines of the law.  

Drone fishing is incredibly contentious, passionately defended and enthusiastically criticised. The mention of drone fishing on social or other media is like a red rag to many bulls. A moderate fishing drone will cost about R 20 000, and the specialised tackle required is not cheap, thus rendering the sale of drone-related equipment important to some local businesses.  

What exactly is drone fishing? 

Putting out bait at large distances 

"Drone fishing" is using a drone to take bait out and deposit it in a body of water. Its most significant benefit is that anyone, regardless of their fishing ability or experience but who have spent the thousands of rand necessary, can now put bait out at large distances with great accuracy. Drones equipped with cameras can even drop the bait in front of cruising fish or on a specific reef. Drone fishers can target the previously inaccessible area beyond normal casting distance, and one drone can "service" multiple rods. 

The principal reason for the strong support, and robust criticism, of drone fishing, is its efficiency in enabling anglers to hook large fish. However, a primary concern of its critics is the relative inefficiency in landing these fish due largely to too many drone operators being inexperienced anglers. In spite of using ever stronger tackle, drone fishermen "lose" a high proportion of hooked fish.  

READ | 'Lets keep with the times' - Angler defends drone fishing

Drone fishing landing rates vary markedly, but most would agree that, overall, more fish are "lost" than landed. This often leaves animals, specifically large sharks and stingrays, with big hooks embedded in their mouths and often hundreds of metres of strong line trailing them and endangering other marine life. Hooking a large fish far out usually results in a protracted fight, often exhausting the fish beyond the point of recovery and increasing the death rate of released fish. To minimise released fish death rates, it is best to land fish quickly and handle them gently.

Fishing along the South African coast used to be excellent but, over the decades, our forefathers caught and killed large numbers of fish. As a result, catch rates dropped and then, as equipment and techniques improved and the number of anglers increased, the catch rates declined even further. Ski boats and surf skis became popular, and apart from some important Marine Protected Areas, it became possible for anglers to access almost everywhere except the area between shore casting distance and areas easily accessible to watercraft. A relatively small number of well-resourced people who own drones can now access this final frontier, and the last sanctuary left to our coastal fish. One of the greatest benefits to drone anglers, but a very serious impact on the environment, is accessing these areas.    

The new South Africa had an excellent start to marine management with the Marine Living Resources Act, signed into law by former President Nelson Mandela. Worldwide, this was seen as a progressive piece of legislation, crafted to our situation, trying to establish a balance between use and protection and to share available resources among all people, rich and poor, commercial and recreational. 

Illegal flying of drones 

On top of fish stock and biodiversity worries, another grave concern about drone fishing is that, mainly due to how and where drones are flown, most is illegal in terms of important, but often ignored, safety legislation.  

To operate any drone, it is necessary to be compliant with the SA Civil Aviation Authority. There are many areas where it is illegal to fly drones including within 10 kilometres of airfields, all "Protected" or "Restricted" areas and within 50 metres of the public without consent. These laws are for general safety and, while some drone operators are trained and certified and fish legally in "open areas", most are not operating legally.

During the recent KwaZulu-Natal "sardine run" more than ten fishing drones were regularly being operated within a few hundred meters of the coastline. The vast majority were illegal as, in many instances, the pilots were flying drones over and around crowds of people.

READ | Letters: Drones doing harm to KZN shore fish

Along the wildcoast coastline, drones are used to access closed areas and reefs that have been "untouched" for decades. In places like Lupatana, Msikaba and Grosvenor a few people use drones illegally to target large, often very slow-growing and old, reef fish which were previously protected in "no-take" zones in the MPAs. I have seen fishing drones flying illegally inside the iSimangaliso World Heritage Site, where fish should be safe.  

Criticism of drone fishing can result in direct threats and intimidation as people say they are being unfairly discriminated against. Drone fishers claim it is their right to embrace modern technology but, in my opinion, not if it is illegal, unsafe and unsustainable.  

Marine management along the South African shores has not improved recently, and many things have slipped. While a few people exceeding the bag limit or selling some fish may not be considered by most to be critically important, the ignoring of illegal drone fishing most likely is. Drone fishing significantly adds to the depletion of fish stocks that are not only part of our heritage and biodiversity but are also important tourism and recreational assets. Not to forget, many coastal people who cannot afford drones rely on catching fish to supply their basic needs. 

Ignored for years 

Illegal drone fishing has been ignored for years. I am not aware of a single prosecution, which has resulted in ever more bold, illegal drone fishing.

Our laws generally, both in terms of safety and biodiversity, are wise and useful but need to be enforced. If a drone angler is correctly certified and obeys the fishing regulations, then the fishing should be safe and sustainable.

If not, our government is failing us and our future generations for a relatively small number of well-resourced people who have a disproportionate impact on our environment, fish stocks and even safety.  

These are trying times, but it would not take much effort to clarify the true legal situation to the media, public and officials and instruct the relevant authorities to immediately check any drone angler for compliance with the laws of the land.  

Having read this I suspect that many of you will agree with my opinion and that of most of my colleagues, that drone fishing, as it's currently being practised, is unsustainable, inappropriate, unsafe, unethical and, in nearly all cases, illegal and thus should be stopped. 

- Dr Scotty Kyle is an Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife Retired Section Head. He was involved in marine matters and continues to consult within the conservation sector. He is a keen angler and has witnessed the development and advances of drone fishing over a number of years. 

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