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Drone fishing a danger to sharks and may be unfair to other fishers — study

Image: Stock image

“Drone fishing” is a relatively recent innovation in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles.

Some recreational anglers use personal drones to fly baited lines into hard-to-reach areas of water, or to look for good fishing areas.

Fishing is a popular sport and hobby in SA, which has a 2,850km shoreline. The most recent estimate of the number of marine shore-based anglers is about 400,000.

The group of researchers I’m part of, who study linefish (fish caught using hook and line) became aware over the past 10 years or so of the increased practice of drone fishing.

This was in part thanks to recreational fishers approaching us with their concerns.

One of the concerns is that more enthusiastic anglers and their ability to catch fish might have significant effects on fish stocks and other animals (such as birds) in coastal zones.

Another is that drone fishing might intensify conflict between fisher groups competing for the same species.

Aside from recreation, line fishing provides the primary source of protein and income for about 2,730 commercial fishers, 2,400 small-scale boat fishers and 30,000 small-scale shore-based fishers.

We agreed the practice should be investigated, but faced a challenge: there was very little monitoring going on 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 big (357%) spike in interest in drone fishing in 2016.

There were also worrying indications of a threat to species of conservation concern in SA.

We then consulted commercial drone operators, legal researchers and others to get a more holistic view.

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 fishing authorities.

The department of forestry, fisheries & the environment then released a public notice warning recreational anglers that the use of drones and other electronic devices is deemed illegal under the South African Marine Living Resources Act.

The fishing drone companies that had already emerged are now struggling to survive.

They have taken the department to court seeking clarity on the legality of using drones in fishing.

The judgment in this case, which is in the appeal court, will no doubt pave the way for how drone fishing is managed in SA.

Innovative research methods

Largely because we were housebound during the 2020-2021 Covid-19 pandemic we gathered most of our data via the internet.

We surveyed social media platforms for drone-fishing-dedicated groups and used Google trends to track internet searches for “drone fishing”.

Results indicated a 357% spike in interest in 2016, after the release of a popular YouTube video of an angler catching a large longfin tuna from an Australian beach using a drone.

The search volume increased to about  3,600 monthly searches from an average of  about  1,400 before the peak.

“Drone fishing” Facebook groups had more than 17,000 members and 38,700 videos, with titles including the term “drone fishing” had been uploaded.

The online interest was mostly in three countries: New Zealand, SA and Australia.

To get an idea of which fish species were targeted, we then watched 100 YouTube videos posted by drone fishers in those three countries.

In both New Zealand and Australia, the most frequently observed catch was red snapper, which is not a species of direct conservation concern.

In SA, though, sharks made up the majority (97%) of viewed catches, many of which are of severe conservation concern, such as the dusky shark.

Impacts of drone fishing

Having established interest in and the presence of drone fishing in SA, we sought to consider the issue holistically — its impact on:

  • targeted fish and their habitats;

  • other animals in the coastal zone; and

  • other people using the coastal zone.

Drones with cameras allow anglers to identify ideal fishing habitats far from the shore. Areas that anglers couldn’t reach before are now open to exploitation.

Even fish that are released are less likely to survive when caught further offshore.

A large fish hooked hundreds of metres offshore is likely to experience extreme exhaustion and physiological disturbance and it may be consumed by other predators.

The potential loss of fishing tackle by drone anglers is also a concern.

It is common to lose tackle, either when it gets stuck in rocky habitats or while fighting large fish such as sharks.

Both scenarios may result in hundreds of metres of fishing line remaining in the ocean.

In addition to polluting the marine environment, such debris threatens to entangle birds, marine mammals and turtles.

In SA, drone fishing is only accessible to affluent anglers.

Their increased catches might lead to conflict with fishers who depend on their catch for food or income.

It’s also possible that sharing live information on fishing conditions via the internet could add to 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 SA.

We drew attention to legislation that could be used indirectly to regulate the practice.

Regulation and management of fisheries

Three of the paper’s co-authors were part of a working group for the department.

We shared the paper with the department and in 2022 it took concrete action on this issue for the first time.

The department released a public notice which explicitly prohibits drones and other remotely operated vehicles for angling.

Companies that custom-build fishing drones were granted leave to appeal the original court ruling on their application to unban drone fishing. The appeal has not yet been heard.

We hope the end result will be better monitoring and management of SA recreational fishery, so that resources are available to those who need them the most. — The Conversation

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