Durban - The legal, ethical and environment waters of drone angling are murky and heavily contested but stakeholders from all sides of the multimillion-rand industry agreed that government intervention was required.
Drone angling has grown exponentially with the country being a global leader in innovation and exportation. Traditionally an angler’s reach would be as far as they could cast their bait and line but drones are used to extend that reach as bait gets flown and dropped deeper out at sea.
Popular brands included DJI, SwellPro, and Gannet with prices starting at around R5 000. Depending on specifications, tackle, and other fishing requirements like rods, receipts could total to about R100 000.
Bruce Mann, senior scientist at the Oceanographic Research Institute from the SA Association for Marine Biological Research, said drone angling posed new environmental challenges.
“Deeper waters beyond casting range serve as refuges to certain fish species and now these previously untouched areas can be exploited. The populations of many important recreational angling fish species have been categorised as collapsed.
“The use of extremely effective technology, such as drones, will put more pressure on some of these already vulnerable populations like silver and dusky kob and may drive them over the edge,” he said.
“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 the animals, which is important if released after capture. Released animals in this tired state are more vulnerable to predation and their chances of survival are greatly reduced.
“Another aspect of drone angling is that more fishing line and tackle gets left out at sea if the angler gets stuck or is cut off, which is harmful to other marine life like sea turtles and birds,” Mann said.
Mann said calls for government intervention were 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.”
Recently the SA Drone Angling Association was formed and its acting chairman Yugen Govender with his executive team of long-time anglers hoped they could reel in the sport.
“There is currently no governing body and we want to provide structure to drone angling as well as education, training and assist with licensing and certification. This will prevent the violation of laws and regulations and mitigate harm to the environment and sea life.
“A 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,” said Govender.
“I know people who due to disabilities could no longer fish but with drones they can, they don’t worry about being unable to cast.“
Govender and his team admitted the sport was being conducted in a grey area but no laws were technically being broken as no fishing license and legislature specified drone angling but this was an issue they were engaging with the government to resolve.
Drones anglers are considered hobbyists and the drone was not technically used to fish but considered a vehicle for the bait. As such, they fell into the recreational ambit of the SA Model Aircraft Association which was regulated by the SA Civil Aviation Authority.
When asked if drone angling was legal, Kabelo Ledwaba, spokesperson for the SACAA, 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).
“In addition, other affected organs of State such as the transport department and department of environment, forestry and fisheries as well as municipal by-laws must be observed.”
Professional angler Duvan van Breda was originally against drone angling but has since come around and is the owner of SwellPro which sells drones for angling.
“I thought it was the wrong way to fish but now I’m all for it. 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,” he said.
Jacques Venter, angling drone manufacturer and exporter, said eyes were on the government to promote the sport 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.
The Department of Environment, Forestry and Fisheries spokesperson Zolile Nqayi said drone angling was currently unregulated but research was being conducted to inform future policy.