Coast KZN

01 Jun 2023

Use of drones for recreational fishing still illegal – Department of Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment

Dominic Naidoo (IOL) Picture: JACK GUEZ/ AFP. Drones fly over the sea.

The Department of  Forestry, Fisheries and the Environment (corrected from The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries) has blasted fisherman who use electronic devices to conduct illegal fishing activities at some of the country’s dams and rivers. According to the Department, in February last year, it was alerted to devices, including bait-carrying drones, bait carrying remote-controlled boats and other remotely-operated vehicles that were being used by recreational anglers to illegally catch fish and sharks in South African water bodies. The Department previously indicated that these devices are strictly prohibited and that recreational anglers and members of the public were warned that enforcement action would be taken where the use of such devices was found.

In March 2022, Gannet Works Proprietary Limited, a company which sells fishing drones, along with other members of the angling community, brought an application against the deputy director-general: fisheries management and the minister responsible for forestry fisheries and the environment. The groups requested the court to declare that the use of bait-carrying drones, bait-carrying remote-controlled boats, and other remotely-operated devices is not prohibited under the Marine Living Resources Act, 1998 (Act No. 18 of 1998) (MLRA) and its implementing regulations.

On April 12, 2022, the request was denied. A subsequent application for leave to appeal was similarly denied on October 26, 2022. On May 2, 2023, however, the Supreme Court of Appeal granted permission to appeal. This appeal has not yet been heard by the Supreme Court of Appeal, where it is presently pending.

Upon learning that permission to appeal had been granted, various social media sites began disseminating incorrect information to the general public and recreational anglers in particular. The incorrect message stated that the granting of permission to appeal rendered the February 24, 2022 notification null and void and that fishing with drones was now legal. Anglers were encouraged to continue dropping lures using their drones. However, this interpretation of the law is incorrect.

The Department then obtained the opinion of a senior counsel who stated unequivocally that the granting of permission to appeal does not in any way invalidate the February 24, 2022 notification, which was a summary and explanation of the legal provisions in the MLRA pertaining to recreational fishing. This means that although permission to appeal has been granted, drone fishing remains illegal.

In other words, the judgment and order of April 12, 2022 did not examine and overturn the existing legal framework, nor did it find the existing statutory requirements for lawful recreational fishing approved for angling to be unconstitutional. It had no effect on the statutory obligations imposed on recreational anglers since 2005 or on the definition of “angling,” both of which remain in full force and effect and part of the legal framework.

Therefore, the suspension of the High Court’s order to dismiss the case cannot suspend the operation, execution, and enforcement of the law under the MLRA and its regulations pertaining to recreational anglers that have been in effect since 2005, or the definition of “angling” in any way.

The Department said it will continue to enforce the law in accordance with the public announcement of February 24, 2022, unless and until the Supreme Court of Appeal issues a contrary order.