Are Drone Fishing the Future?

One of Hawai'i's most prized game fish is the giant trevally.

Are Drone Fishing the Future?

One of Hawai'i's most prized game fish is the giant trevally. This apex predator is a strong and stubborn one. The fish hides in caves and coral reefs making it difficult to spot when you are fishing from shore. Brandon Barques (35-year-old Honolulu construction worker) knows how to locate it. Barques watches the live video feed from his phone and sends a drone with a fishing line to the surf in search of large sandy canals or depressions on the seafloor. Once he has found the perfect spot, he activates the drone to drop his line. He then calls the drone and waits for it to take a bite.

Anglers call smaller trevally papio. However, fish above 4.5 kg are called ulua. Barques, who has been fishing since his youth, says that he had never caught an ulua before he began using a drone. He finally caught a 54-kilogram giant with the help of his metallic companion. He says drone fishing is a whole new way of doing things. It changes how we fish and how we think.

Over the past decade, drones have become more affordable and recreational fishermen have found a new way of scouting for fish and casting a line. Newer drones can be used for fishing and are waterproof. A submarine drone can be purchased for amateur anglers equipped with sonar and a lure. Although videos may show anglers fishing with drones, they are only light enough to be able to reel in heavy fish such as ulua. They can still carry a hook longer than any expertly cast line.

Barques views fishing with drones just as another difficult skill to master. He says, "I've seen many people give up." They buy a drone for [US] $3,000 and fish for months... but never catch anything. "So I can't claim it's cheating." He said drones have made it possible for people with mobility problems, such as his uncle, to fish ulua.

Barques' enthusiasm for high-tech assistants in fishing is not shared by everyone. Some anglers question the wisdom and fairness in fighting fish with robots.

A user called slonezp posted sarcastically in a 2015 discussion thread at, "Let’s just take all of the sport out sportfishing." Some complain that drones disturb the peaceful atmosphere associated with fishing. One user called them "oversized mosquitoes". However, some recreational fishermen feel drones are no different to other technologies like sonar fish finders or GPS navigation that gives them an advantage.

Recent years have seen a rise in opposition to drone fishing. Many states in the USA, including Oregon and Michigan, have banned drone fishing or hunting. After researchers discovered that drone fishermen were catching sharks like the dusky shark, South Africa passed a ban against drone fishing. A bill was introduced to the Hawai'i legislature this year. It seeks to ban the use of "unmanned aerial vehicle for the purpose of capturing aquatic life." The original bill prohibited drones being used for aerial surveillance. However, the current version allows drones to be used to transport fishing gear, such as lines, bait, and other equipment. Both houses have passed the bill and it is now awaiting the governor's signature.

Barques used to have to paddle past shallow reefs in order to drop his line in deep waters before he began fishing with a drone. This was a dangerous and difficult journey that could prove fatal. Advocates of the ban fear that drones could increase the number fishing lines in deep waters, as it is easier for fishermen to reach that depth. Brian Neilson, administrator of Hawaii Department of Land and Natural Resources Division of Aquatic Resources, said that this might increase the likelihood that a hook will catch a surfer, boater or protected animal like a monk sealing. These issues were there before drones. Neilson claims that his office has received complaints regarding drones in recent times, but it is not clear if they have increased the number.

Leimana Date, executive director at the Aha Moku Advisory Committee (an administrative body of the Hawaiian state government that advises about environmental issues), said that drone fishing is a growing concern for Indigenous people. Native Hawaiians have a tradition of preserving certain areas in the ocean for fishing. She says, "If you have an autonomous drone that can find these areas, then it will be raided by people who don't care about the cultural aspects of the area."

Alexander Winkler (a marine ecologist from the Algarve Centre of Marine Sciences, Portugal) said that drone fishing is emerging against the background of increasing scientific understanding of recreational fishing and not just commercial fishing.

Winkler says drones are not the only technology that has revolutionized sportfishing over recent years. He also mentions improved hooks and scented lures. Social media can be used by fishers to share tips and fish spots. Winkler says that WhatsApp can't be banned for fishing. He believes that drone fishing might have a future once governments understand how to control it.

Drone fishing is gaining popularity in Hawai'i, and elsewhere, despite the opposition. Barques still occasionally catches the side-eye while fishing from the beach. He says, "Just those people who cast every weekend and never catch one." "And then, I invite them with me."

This article comes from Hakai Magazine. It is an online publication that covers science and society in coastal ecosystems. You can find more stories like these at

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