“Drone hunting” is a relatively recent innovation in the use of unmanned aerial vehicles. Some recreational fishermen use personal drones to fly bait lines in hard-to-reach areas of water, or to search for good fishing spots.
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 fishermen on the offshore beach is about 400,000.
The group of researchers I belong to, which studies linefish (fish caught using hook and line) has become aware over the past ten years or so of the increasing practice of drone fishing. This was in part thanks to recreational fishermen contacting us with their concerns.
One concern is that increases in the numbers of enthusiastic anglers and their ability to catch fish may have significant impacts on fish stocks and other animals (such as birds) in coastal areas. Another reason is that drone hunting may exacerbate conflict between groups of hunters competing for the same species. Apart from recreation, line fishing provides the main source of protein and income for about 2,730 commercial fishermen, 2,400 small-scale boat fishermen and 30,000 small-scale inshore fishermen in South Africa.
We agreed that this practice should be investigated, but faced a challenge: there was too little monitoring going on to provide data.
We therefore took an unconventional approach in 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 was a significant rise (357%) in interest in drone hunting in 2016. There were also worrying indications of a threat to species of conservation concern in South Africa.
We then consulted commercial drone operators, legal researchers, and others to get a more comprehensive view. Drone hunting has economic, political, legal, environmental and physiological impacts. Accordingly, we made some recommendations for further research and monitoring, and shared them with fishing authorities.
The South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment subsequently issued a public notice warning recreational fishermen that the use of drones and other electronic devices is considered illegal under the South African Marine Living Resources Act.
Drone hunting companies that have already emerged are now struggling to survive. They have taken the ministry to court to seek clarification on the legality of using drones for fishing. The ruling in this case, currently before the Court of Appeal, will undoubtedly pave the way for how drone fishing is managed in South Africa in the future.
Innovative research methods
Largely because we were homebound during the 2020-2021 COVID-19 pandemic, we collected most of our data online. We surveyed the social media platforms of 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 a fisherman catching a large longfin tuna from an Australian beach using a drone. Search volume has increased to about 3,600 searches per month from an average of about 1,400 before the peak. “Drone hunting” groups on Facebook have more than 17,000 members and 38,700 videos have been uploaded with titles that include the term “drone hunting.”
Online interest was mostly in three countries: New Zealand, South Africa and Australia.
To get an idea of the target fish species, we then watched 100 YouTube videos posted by drone fishermen in those three countries. In both New Zealand and Australia, the most frequently observed catch was red snapper, which is not a species of immediate conservation concern. However, in South Africa, sharks made up the majority (97%) of catches seen, many of which raise serious conservation concern, such as the dusky shark.
Effects of drone hunting
Having established our interest in and presence of drone fishing in South Africa, we sought to look at this issue holistically – its impact on:
Target fish and their habitats
Other animals in the coastal area
Other people use the coastal area.
Drones equipped with cameras allow anglers to locate ideal fishing habitat offshore. Areas that were previously inaccessible to fishermen are now open to exploitation. Even released fish are less likely to survive when caught offshore. Large fish hooked hundreds of meters from shore are likely to suffer severe exhaustion and physiological disruption and may be consumed by other predators.
The potential loss of fishing gear by drone hunters is also a concern. It is common for them to lose the ability to handle them, either when they get stuck in rocky habitats or while fighting larger fish such as sharks. Both scenarios could result in hundreds of meters of fishing line remaining in the ocean. In addition to polluting the marine environment, this debris threatens to trap birds, marine mammals and turtles.
In South Africa, drone hunting is only possible for wealthy hunters. Increasing their catch may lead to conflict with fishermen who depend on their catch for food or income.
Sharing direct information about fishing conditions online can also raise concerns about the privacy of other public beach users.
Our 2021 paper noted that at the time, there were no specific regulations regarding drone hunting in any country, including South Africa. We drew 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 of the South African Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment. We shared the paper with the administration and in 2022, it took concrete action on this issue for the first time.
The department issued a public notice expressly prohibiting the use of drones and other remotely operated vehicles for hunting.
Companies that make custom-made fishing drones have been granted permission to appeal the original court ruling on their request to lift the drone fishing ban. The appeal has not yet been heard.
We hope that the end result will be better monitoring and management of recreational fisheries in South Africa, so that resources are available to those who need them most.