Fish For the Future

Ocean Harvest

As South Africans prepare for their summer break with the annual rush to our beautiful coastline, many will be planning to spend time indulging in some shore based fishing. But before rushing in to ‘wet a line’, it is crucial that fishermen prepare to fish in a sustainable and ethical manner and to review the following check list of piscary conduct to complement your pre fishing gear inspection.


Every marine and estuarine fisher needs to be in possession of a valid fishing and bait collection permit whenever out fishing. Familiarize yourself with the respective types pf permits required for fishing and bait collection activities that you intend to carry out and be aware of regional size limits and bag restrictions.

Permits can be purchased from the Post Office as either a monthly or an annual fishing permit. If you are considering more than one coastal vacation in a calendar year, opt for the annual permit.

Permits are only valid for the registered person and are not transferable. Ethically, it is also good practice to only fish for permit holders and not on behalf of a family member that ‘stayed’ at home.

Fish For The Future

Each species has a size limit and daily catch limit. Certain species have closed seasons. These catch limits have been calculated according to scientific stock assessments and have been implemented to manage the future sustainability of marine resources in general, and of species biomass in particular.

You only need to chat to older fishers to to get a grasp of how severely our marine resources and fish stocks have been depleted. Not only has fishing effort more than quadrupled in the past 4 decades, but the average size of fish have drastically diminished in the past 60 years.

These shifting baselines are the result of a combination of factors.

  • Population explosion – in the past 50 years the South African population has more than quadrupled, with the proportional increase in fishing pressure on marine resources. To illustrate this, in 1994, if every South African went down to the coast, there would have been 9 people for every 1m of shoreline. In 2021, that number would have increased to 20 people/m of shoreline.
  • Habitat destruction – reefs and other marine habitat have been destroyed by a range of factors including increased commercial fishing and silting up from soil loss into the oceans from rivers.
  • Trophy fishing – targeting large specimens of species with elaborate reproductive strategies has a major impact on the survival of a species and other species dependent on their role in the eco system.
  • Disruption of food chains and apex predator populations disturbs the balance of marine food chains and has a compound impact on marine biomass and species densities.
  • Agrochemicals leaching into the ocean that kill reef communities and increase the incidence of algal blooms.
  • Climate change – South African coastal waters have been negatively impacted as a result of changing sea temperatures and acidification.
  • Increased urbanization – not only has the South African population quadrupled in 50 years, but it has transformed from approximately 45% urbanization in 1991 to 67% urbanization in 2020. Increased urbanization results on increased chemical and plastic pollution lost into the ocean through urban infrastructure and adjacent rivers.

South African inshore marine resources are under severe pressure and it is incumbent of every recreational fishermen to recalibrate their fishing behavior in context of the combined pressures that compromise the sustainable future of fishing.

Recruiting a sustainable future of fishing

Reproduction is one of the primary mechanisms of species survival. Marine species have a diverse array of reproduction strategies. Key to most species is the size of sexual reproduction. The combination of climate change and increased fishing and harvesting pressure of marine species has lead to the reduction of the average size of a species which, in some species, has had an adverse impact on their breeding rate, as a lower percentage of their population reach sexual maturity resulting in a reduced recruitment of the species.

A sought after fish species, the Dusky Kob (Argyrosomus japonicus), are prolific spawners. Sadly, the population of Dusky Kob has plummeted to critical levels calculated in 2020 to be approximately 2% of pristine population (pre fishing pressure era). Recent research has demonstrated that actual recruitment of fingerlings is sporadic and is strongly related to flood cycles. A long lived species, easily living beyond 40 years, they reach sexual maturity at about 8 years. Larval fish need to move into estuaries for recruitment and are most likely guided to the estuaries by a high outflow of fresh water associated with high rainfall. Essentially their long lifespan has evolved to ‘outlive’ droughts for at least one successful recruitment before they die. If a large Kob is caught, the best course of of action would be to release it for breeding purposes to replenish future stocks. Read More

The larger male red Romans are territorial.

Another interesting reproductive strategy is that of sequential hermaphroditism, fish that change sex when they reach a certain size. Red Roman (Chrysoblehus laticeps) are territorial sequential hermaphrodites, starting as females and transitioning to males at a certain size. Again, by targeting the large specimens, the breeding males are removed form the population, and without mature males, there can be no reproduction and recruitment of the species. An added challenge is that the mature males are territorial and when removed, are not readily replaced as it requires females to first reach a specific size to transition into males and disperse to the vacant territory. Incorrect fishing of this species can greatly reduce and even potentially eliminate them from an area.

Sharks and rays are a group of fish that can be severely impacted by overfishing and indiscriminate killing. In broad terms there are oviparous (lay eggs) and viviparous (live bearers). Approximately 30% of sharks and rays are oviparous.

Generally the smaller sharks species like shy sharks and catsharks are oviparous and the larger sharks are viviparous. The threat that fishing and indiscriminate killing poses to sharks is linked to their reproductive strategies of advanced age of sexual maturity and low fecundity rates.

As a oviparous species, a Puffadder Shy Shark (Haploblepharus edwardsii) lives to 22 years and attains sexual maturity at 7 years. The female will lay only two eggs at a time.

Spotted Gully Sharks (Triakis mrgalopterus) are viviparous and attain sexual maturity at 14 years and live to approximately 21 years. The female will bear between 6 and 12 pups after a long gestation of nearly 2 years and effectively will only produce young three times in her life. Catching and killing a pregnant female effectively eliminates between 7 and 37 Spotted Gully Sharks from the ecosystem.

The principle of sustainability also relates to bait species. Mussels and oysters are a popular delicacy savoured by many on their annual coastal vacation. The indigenous Brown mussel (Perna perna) are not only a great meal, but they are vital habitat for a myriad of marine invertebrates. Indiscriminatly scraping them off the rocks to collect a daily quota or to find bait species like blood worm has resulted in the decimation of mussel beds along various sections of the coastline.

The Brown mussel lives to 24 months and reaches sexual maturity at 18 months. The byssal threads that attach the mussels to the rock substrate disintegrate after 2 years and the mussel drifts free as food for a marine predator. The value of this bysaal network in a mussel bed is that it is vital for the recruitment of the larval stage of mussels. When harvesting mussels, it is more sustainable to ‘cherry pick’ the large desired mussels and leave the mussel bed intact. A certain percentage of large mussels also need to be left in place to be able to spawn.

Catch for your plate

Fishermen need to formulate a sustainable balance between the thrill of the catch and the reality of what can be consumed. The daily catch and size limits are an indication of what you can sustainably catch, however this does need to be moderated by the reality of what you, as a recreational fisher, can actually consume.

It is unsustainable to catch more than you you can consume simply because you can. The baseline of fish size and density has severely shifted to smaller sizes and numbers over the past 6 decades and requires a concerted effort to work towards shifting it back.

In the Garden Route, a survey demonstrated that of every 10 marine fish caught by recreational fishers, 7 were retained for consumption and only 3 returned. By contrast, in the USA, studies indicate that for every 10 marine fish caught 7 are returned and only 3 are retained for consumption, an ethos that would enhance the sustainability of our South African marine resources.

Ghost Fishing and Entanglements

Research by the Strandloper Project reveals that the loss of recreation fishing tackle contributes to ghost fishing and lethal entanglements. Ghost fishing is the indiscriminate capture and killing of marine fauna by lost fishing gear. While most ghost fishing research has been conducted on commercial fishing activities, very little research has been conducted on the risk posed by lost and discarded recreational fishing tackle.

Small shark species like this Pajama Catshark are regular victims of ghost fishing caused by snagged recreational fishing tackle.

Every fishermen knows, that on each outing, they will lose their tackle when it snags on a rocky seabed or reef. The snagged fishing gear poses a threat of ghost fishing and avian entanglements. A drifting baited hook attached to snagged monofilament still has the capacity to catch and kill fish and diving birds. The Strandloper Project has documented 11 species of fish killed by ghost fishing and the fatal entanglements of 6 species of birds caught in monofilament. Gulls and cormorants are also prone to ingesting discarded baited hooks with lengths of monofilament attached. If the hook doesn’t kill them by piercing the wall of their digestive tract, the monofilament gets caught on a branch or roost and they die when they are unable to fly away.

Reeling in can lead to the line getting snagged on a rock as the fish dives. When the line breaks off, as happened with this Blue Stingray, the fish is effectively trapped until it dies.

If your repeatedly loose tackle when you cast at a particular spot, rather move to another location where you won’t loose your tackle. not only will you reduce the risk of ghost fishing and entanglement, but you will have a financial saving by reducing the amount of lost tackle.

Scraping away the base layer

There is an art to reeling in fishing tackle, and like artists, every fisher has their own technique. Very few consider the damage to the seabed and reef that reeling in causes. In high cast zones, encrusting flora and fauna are scraped off the rocky substrate and reef, leaving a bare strip arcing out approximately 45o from the casting location. At popular fishing sites, the impact on the reef is significant with negative repercussions on the basal productivity of the reef.

Reef surveys demonstrate that in high cast zones there is no flora or fauna, and in the absence of the basal production, there are reduced densities of bait fish species.

Discarding productivity

An unsustainable consequence of recreational fishing in South Africa is the discarding, instead of release, of unwanted species. Considered a pest that is ‘pinching my bait’, sharks, rays and seacatfish (Galeichthys spp) are frequently discarded to ‘prevent them stealing my bait again’.

The discarding of a female Spotted Gully Shark is the pootential loss of between 7 and 37 sharks from the system and the negative impact on fish biodiversity and biomass

Research has demonstrated that a robust and healthy shark population is, contrary to popular belief, a vital mechanism in bolstering both biodiversity and marine productivity, particularly in inshore and near shore regions.

In a bid to foster a healthy and productive marine habitat, fishermen should, instead of discarding ‘pesky’ sharks, rays and seacatfish, be diligently returning them to the ocean to continue their respective ecological functions.

Further Reading : Discards disrupt marine biodiversity and productivity

Sporting chance

The wildlife industry has made tremendous advances in the capture and relocation of animals. Original capture methods in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s employed chasing down an animal to throw a rope over its head and rein it under control before transporting it to a new location. The success rate of this technique was low due to high fatality rates. Research revealed that the stress of the chase and the build up of lactic acid was lethal after prolonged chases. As a valuable industry, more sustainable methods were developed and current capture methods employ veterinary tranquilization and health assessment with minimal chasing.

Scrolling through social media, there are many accounts of fishing exploits boasting ‘species first time’ and PB’s (personal best). Armed with expensive gear, there is a new generation of fishers that are out to catch sharks, looking for the thrill of the fight and bragging rights

While tag and release has demonstrated post release survival for some species of sharks, there is mounting evidence that after being released, many species swim away quickly and then die, possibly from physiological fatigue.

In some states in the USA, fishers are required to conclude a shark fishing course before being issued with a permit to capture sharks. The essence of the course covers the ethical landing and handling of the sharks before release. Aspects covered in the course include not landing sharks on rocky shores, not lifting them out of the water and the correct handling while removing hooks and tagging them.

Hammerhead sharks are vulnerable to blunt force trauma, particularly to their eyes, when landed on rocky substrate. Studies also indicate that they are susceptible to fatigue stress which can be lethal after being released.

Grazes and blunt force trauma inflicted on sharks when they are landed out of water can be life threatening. Hammerhead Sharks regularly sustain damage to their eyes while thrashing on rocks once removed from the the water. They also appear to be a species that succumbs readily to stress fatigue.

Sharks have a large liver, up to one third of their body mass. The anatomy of a shark, like other aquatic fauna, relies on water pressure for support of their internal organs. When lifted out of the water, gravity exerts pressure on internal connective tissue, with possible damage to internal organs. Large shark specimens are also prone to the risk of physical damage to internal organs, in particular, their liver, when they are thrashing out of water.

The time that a shark is out of the water, especially after a ‘hard fight’ to land it, has a major influence on it’s survival. If you are planning on catching a shark, make sure that you have all your equipment close at hand to remove the hook.

Seeing a social media post of someone landing a 3m shark on rock 2m above the water line should not be dignified with approval. On the contrary, such methods and locations should be discouraged by the fishing circle with community imposed guidelines and should motivate for safer and more respectful handling of a shark catch.

Fatigue, grazes and scratches may also make a released shark the target for a larger shark. Blood loss and the magnetic impulse of stressful movement would attract a large shark that will perceive it as vulnerable prey.

By modifying where you fish for sharks and how you land them, you increase their survival rate after release.

If you truly want a thrill with sharks, rather grab your dive mask and fins and immerse yourself in their world. Social media is bursting with remarkable shark encounters while free diving – spoiler alert most of them are extremely rewarding and offer a great insight into what incredible creatures they are.

Zoned Out

Every livestock farmer manages their breeding herd or flock with diligence and care, because to kill off stud and breeding livestock would not be sustainable, ultimately leading to the demise of their farming.

Replicating the principle of protecting breeding livestock in the ocean is done through a network of marine protected areas. Established to protect marine fauna from fishing pressure, fish populations can breed within the MPA with the excess population dispersing into the surrounding areas.

In South Africa, most of our inshore MPA’s allow shore based recreational fishing. Communities that flank an MPA benefit from increased fish sizes and fish populations.

Along the sections of coastline with few MPA’s, the implementation of community driven exclusion zones would promote better fishing. Establishing self imposed closed zones, which can be altered on an annual basis, would enhance local fishing sustainability. Trials in Mozambique have demonstrated that ‘closing’ fishing and bait collect activities along a mere 500m of shoreline and extending 500m out to sea, increases fishing catches in the zone flanking the exclusion zone.

Further Reading : Marine Protected Areas

Clean Image

Entrenched in local shoreline fishing is the opportunity to unwind and relax in a natural environment. Coupled to this is the inevitable indulgence in food and beverages.

Respect the environment and carry out all food and fishing litter for correct disposal at home or in a public bin.

Aerial onslaught

We live in an era of technology, with every industry and hobby embracing each advance. The public availability of drones is a technology that has been embraced by some fishermen. Attaching your baited tackle and flying 200m to 300m offshore to cast your line has become a method of fishing.

Like so many new technologies, it does require diligent preparation that goes beyond just having a robust bank balance.

It is crucial to know what you are targeting as this will determine what line you will use. Using this method, you also have to be respectful of other fishers in your proximity to prevent crossovers.

With your line further out, the chances of you bait being picked up by a large fish is higher. Having the right set up to prevent the risk of line breaking is vital. Reports by angling shops are that, with drone fishing, longer lengths (more than 200m) of monofilament are breaking off. While it may be the Big One that got away, the harsh reality is that irrespective of what size fish broke it off, it will most likely be condemned to a slow death of entanglement.

Watch a research team free a Great White Shark from 1km of monofilament : Watch Here

The bulk of fish consumed in South Africa is caught commercially, and like inshore fish stocks, pelagic species are also under pressure, with some species no longer sustainable or near unsustainable.

When ordering seafood at a restaurant, make a sustainable choice by referencing the SASSI sustainability app or website. Supported by the WWF, the SASSI sustainability grading provides and indication of the sustainability of a fish species and in some species even grades according to the method of catching.

Utilizing a Red, Amber and Green status for each fish, as a consumer you can make an informed choice of fish on the menu with regards to whether it can be eaten on a sustainable basis.

View the SASSI website : SASSI list

Sinking Biodiversity

‘More oom, hoe veel gewigte het u veloor vandag?” I asked an elderly fishermen walking past on the beach.

It must have been lost in translation, as he patted his belly and answered ‘Ek dink nie te veel nie. Ek het nie ver gestap.’

I then explained that I was actually trying to determine how many lead sinkers he had lost and not querying his weight loss.

‘Oh, net sowat 6 of 8 vandag’ he replied.

Too often when asking fishermen what happens to their lost lead sinkers, they answer ‘I haven’t really thought about it.’

Studies by the Strandloper Project have demonstrated that the accumulation of lost lead sinkers on a reef results in lead poisoning of reef fauna and even flora in the immediate vicinity. When lead is removed, it takes approximately 11 months for the regeneration of the denuded reef with new algae and invertebrates.

Sadly, there are no readily available commercial alternatives to lead for sinkers and the only protection against lead poisoning of the reef communities is by regular dives to recover the snagged fishing tackle and sinkers.

Further Reading : 100 pieces of lead

Styve Lyne

The culture of fishing is engrained in so many aspects of our culture. As with every other renewable natural resource, it is incumbent for every fishermen to respect the ocean and foster the sustainability of the entire marine ecosystem.

Enjoy your fishing and foster an environment that generations after you will be able to have the same experience.

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