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Is it a threat to fish? Drone fishing feels heat in South Africa


A new body has been set up to regulate the sector following criticism that drones harm vulnerable fish populations, while professionals fear a missed tourism opportunity.

Drone fishing in South Africa is having damaging effects on fish and the environment, according to stakeholders in the industry who have asked the government to take action. And a new body, the SA Drone Angling Association, has been formed to help regulate the high-tech sport and better educate anglers.

The ability of drone anglers to fish baits much further out than normal casting distance is a threat to what were previously safe havens, according to marine biologist Bruce Mann. The deeper waters beyond casting range are refuges for certain species, but these previously untouched areas are now being exploited, Mann told DroneDJ Senior Editor Josh Spires.

“The populations of many important recreational fish species have been categorised as collapsed, but the use of extremely effective technology such as drones will put more pressure on some of these vulnerable populations and may drive them over the edge,” added Mann, a senior scientist at the Oceanographic Research Institute, part of the SA Association for Marine Biological Research.

“Additionally, fish caught by drone anglers tend to be much bigger and the fight times needed to land them are longer. This puts additional stress on them, which is important if they are released after capture. Fish released in this tired state are more vulnerable to predation and their chances of survival are greatly reduced.”

Mann told DroneDJ that calls for Government intervention had been made but with limited success. “Drone fishing is growing exponentially and we need mechanisms to monitor and regulate it. There are currently no dedicated laws or regulatory body, and we do not know the full extent of damages.”

Another emerging issue from the growing popularity of drone fishing is that it adds to the risk of line and other equipment being left in the ocean, currently one of fishing’s most controversial topics. Yugen Govender, Acting Chairman of the newly formed SA Drone Angling Association, said: “There is currently no governing body and we want to provide structure to drone angling, as well as education and training, and to assist with licensing and certification. This will prevent the violation of laws and regulations and mitigate harm to the environment and sea life.

“The majority of us are not fishing for food, we participate recreationally. Whatever we catch we release. Sustainability and conservation go hand-in-hand with the sport. It is innovation at work. More people are able to fish. I know people who, due to disabilities, could no longer fish because they were unable to cast, but with drones they can.” Govender said that technically no laws were being broken because no fishing licence or legislation specified drone angling, but the Association was engaging with the Government to resolve any issues.

Jacques Venter, angling drone manufacturer and exporter, said eyes were on the Government to promote the practice and invest in it as eco-tourism.
“I export drones to 106 countries. Travellers are often coming to the country for fishing trips and this is revenue that the Government is losing, as well as small businesses and employment that it is not nurturing.

“Yes, there are ethical arguments but there will always be rotten eggs that tarnish a sport’s image and drone angling is no different. However, with the correct government regulations and policing, that should not be an issue. It is a totally missed opportunity and we need to act before some other country swoops in because then it is as good as us flushing millions down the drain in eco-tourism,” he said.

Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said drone angling was currently unregulated but research was being conducted to inform future policy.

Professional angler Duvan van Breda is the owner of SwellPro, which sells drones for fishing and, along with DJI and Gannett, is among the most popular brands. Fishing drone prices start at around R5,000 (£240/$335). “I thought it was the wrong way to fish but now I’m all for it,” he said “I provide guided fishing trips and catching nothing loses you customers. Drones don’t care about the temperaments of the ocean or weather and they get guaranteed results and return customers. It is eco-tourism at its best.”

Kabelo Ledwaba, spokesperson for the South African Consolidated Recreational Angling Association (SACRAA), cited regulations that stated no object or substance shall be released, dispensed, dropped, delivered or deployed from a Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) except by the holder of an RPAS Operating Certificate (ROC). Anglers will argue that drones are not used to hook fish, but are considered a vehicle for the bait. Comparisons are bound to be drawn with bait boats, which are commonly used by carp anglers to drop their baits in distant and inaccessible spots.

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