Our Burning Planet


Illegal fish aggregating device use ups stakes for South African marine life and ecosystems

Illegal fish aggregating device use ups stakes for South African marine life and ecosystems
A rope more than 80m long that was attached to the fish aggregating device, laid out on the beach at Sodwana Bay, Isimangaliso. (Photo: Louis Olivier)

Fish aggregating devices pose a growing threat to ocean life — and South Africa’s marine protected areas are caught in the net too.

On a bright autumn morning in April this year, Louis Olivier scanned the ocean as he gunned his boat through the surf at Sodwana Bay. A divemaster with more than 30 years under his belt, Olivier was taking a group of scuba enthusiasts out to 7 Mile Reef, a dive site ranked among the world’s best

The reef is named for its distance from Jesser’s Point, within northern KwaZulu-Natal’s Isimangaliso Wetland Park, a Unesco World Heritage Site and marine protected area. 

Divers come from far and wide to experience the great diversity of natural life found at Sodwana. On that day, the sea was crystal clear and the group had been looking forward to seeing some of the more than 95 species of soft and hard corals and 1,200 species of fish, including many multicoloured tropical species. 

There was a good chance too that they would encounter huge moray eels, endangered turtles, whales, dolphins and perhaps, if very lucky, prehistoric Coelacanths. But just before Olivier stopped the boat for the divers to get out, he spotted something altogether less enticing.

Near the reef floated what looked like debris from a ship or some sort of flotsam.

“As I came closer, a large shoal of rainbow runners — literally hundreds — were around it. Along with many juvenile fish of various species,” Olivier recalled.

It was a big, square metal contraption with eight buoys attached to it and a trailing rope more than 50m long.  

“I managed to lift the framework on to the boat by myself then started hauling up the rope. In the end, the rope was about 80m long with over 100 bags (like those used for mealie-meal) attached to the rope.”

Olivier had made similar finds before and had no doubts: it was a Fish Aggregating Device, commonly known by its acronym, a FAD. 

FAD explainer

So what exactly are FADs and how do they work? These can be anchored rafts (aFADs) or (as in the case of Olivier’s find) free-floating objects on to which fishermen hang long nets to replicate the flotsam naturally found in the open ocean (drifting FADs). FADs are made to float on the surface of the water or just below it. Sometimes large buoys keep them afloat, or pieces of driftwood lashed together serve the same purpose. 

ocean FAD

The barnacle-covered rope from a Fish Aggregating Device recovered off Isimangaliso. (Photo: Louis Olivier)

FADs may look rough and ready, but are built with serious intent and increasingly these devices have drawn the attention of conservationists who view them as destructive. They point out that FADs are an unselective fishing method, leaving in their wake a big bycatch — when non-target species end up in the catch — and other environmental ills. 

The upper layer of the open ocean is a vast and dangerous place for the animals who live in it. There are no structures for shelter or camouflage, so when debris or seaweed floats through the open waters, epipelagic fish — found in the sea’s sunlit zone, as much as about 200m deep — are drawn to it. 

Cable guy

Olivier hauled away at the rope but after a while could lift it no further. Down dived one of his team, descending 20m to find the cause. “At the end of the rope was a thick cable which I think they use in the shipping industry for pulling boats or lifting heavy stuff,” Olivier said. “That big piece of cable was actually dragging at the bottom of the seafloor and had snagged on the outer side to 7 Mile Reef.”

From the number of barnacles and crabs clinging to the FAD, Olivier estimated it had been in the sea for no more than a few weeks. 


FADs are used by the commercial fishing industry, recreational and charter fishermen. Commercial FADs are equipped with satellite transmitters as well as directional beacons to track their location at sea. Or the positions of FADs anchored below the surface are recorded so fishermen can return to them using global positioning system technology.

FADs provide a temporary habitat for surface-dwelling fish that have adapted to life in the open ocean. Juvenile fish, as well as hunters like dorado (also known as mahi-mahi), wahoo, tuna, stingrays and shark, are drawn in. Such is the attraction that KZN-based marine ecologist Dr Jennifer Olbers likens it to a “moth to a flame”.

“FADs give an unfair advantage to fishermen as the fish around these devices are easy pickings. They can also attract endangered species which are then fished out,” said Olbers, “In larger commercial applications, FADs also attract turtles and can cause increased bycatch in fisheries.” 

These species become entangled in the nets attached to FADs. Typically after a FAD has been in the water for a few weeks to months, a fishing vessel throws a purse seine net around it and takes everything out. Endangered species frequently end up in the net. These include sharks — already under significant pressure, with 100 million killed globally each year — and nearly all species of sea turtle, now classified as endangered. 

Isimangaliso remains one of the last major nesting sites for loggerhead and leatherback turtles and Olbers found it “deeply worrying” that a FAD had been found in the sanctuary’s waters.  

Vulnerable tuna

FADs pose a major threat to some target tuna species, including yellowfin and bigeye that are overfished and extremely vulnerable to FAD fishing. Global tuna catches reached over 5 million metric tons in 2018 — more than doubling since the 1990s. This increase is attributed primarily to the introduction of FADs. It is estimated that more than a thousand FADs are deployed in tuna fisheries globally each year. And because FADs are unselective, many juvenile tuna are caught this way, killed before they have the chance to reproduce. 

According to Andrew Gordon, southern Africa fisheries outreach manager with the Marine Stewardship Council, concerns were now being investigated that FADs may be affecting tuna migratory patterns. 

ocean FAD

Louis Olivier and divers hoist the metal framework of the FAD on to their boat. (Photo: Louis Olivier)

The Department of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries confirmed that although South Africa does have two fishing sectors that directly target tuna — large pelagic longline and tuna pole-line — neither were permitted to use FADs. “Globally, the use of FADs by large tuna purse-seine fleets has increased rapidly in the last three decades and poses a significant threat to the sustainability of tropical tuna stocks. But the use of FADs is prohibited in South African waters regardless of the fishing sector,” said Dr Denham Parker, a researcher with the department. 


According to an international study in the Chagos Archipelago, in the central Indian Ocean, over one-third of dFADs deployed near the marine protected area were at risk of either beaching or passing through the MPA for more than 14 days. 

FADs are often abandoned or lost and many drift in our oceans, entangling sea life and harming corals. These are known as illegal, unreported or unregulated FADs. 

According to Parker, “In some cases, these dFADs drift far enough away from the main area of fishing activity that they are ‘discarded’ as it is no longer economically viable to travel to fish on them, nor retrieve them.” He said that discarded dFADs generally wash up on beaches far from where they were deployed and were considered to be a “significant contributor to marine pollution”. 

On the rise

Reliable figures on how many FADs were in use were not available, but they do appear to be on the increase. 

Olivier, whose dive charter company, Pisces Diving, is based in Sodwana Bay, said: “We (the diving and fishing fraternity) have seen and picked up at least a dozen FADs in the last 20 years that we’ve been here.”

He believes his April FAD find may have been deployed by the foreign commercial fishing industry. 

“Looking at the setup you can see it is not a homemade setup a fisherman could construct in his back garden,” he said, “the rope, bags and type of knots – even the transmitter and buoys themselves let me know that it is a commercial or foreign vessel.”

Parker has a similar view. He said the FAD was likely to have been discarded by a commercial fisher operating outside of South African waters and has drifted into the marine protected area. 

Guillermo Gomez, a fisheries consultant, told a webinar earlier this year titled Fish Aggregating Devices (FADs) in Responsible Tuna Fisheries, that for every 10 FADs deployed by a purse seine fishing vessel, only three continue to be monitored by the vessel. The others were stolen or deliberately abandoned. 

When the sun goes down

Richard Penn-Sawers, the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife park manager for Isimangaliso, noted that fishing using fish aggregating devices was illegal in South Africa. He said no commercial fishing boats were permitted at Sodwana Bay. “Only small-scale subsistence fishing or angling is allowed by community members. No offshore small-scale commercial fishing is permitted.”

But Olivier was certain he had seen foreign vessels sneaking into the Isimangaliso Marine Protected Area (MPA). “It is mostly when we do night dives that we see these vessels staying just off the horizon, out of sight. They creep in closer when the sun starts to set and during the night dives we see them clearly, looking like floating restaurants with all the lights. They stick close to the Mozambican border.”

ocean FAD

A metal framework —part of the FAD — with buoys and transmitter. (Photo: Louis Olivier)

Penn-Sawers said offshore observation was relatively good within the MPA at Isimangaliso, but conceded that foreign trawlers do enter the MPAs on the northern boundary from Mozambique from time to time. “We do use the SAPS and navy in these instances. I do not believe that these trawlers are targeting pelagic species, but reef fish — which is a real threat to the fish stocks in this area.” 

James Wood, Marine Conservation Manager of the Cape Vidal section of the Isimangaliso MPA, said illegal fishing was happening in the MPA, especially near Kosi Bay, to the north of the park. The culprits included small recreational ski-boat anglers, launching out of Ponta do Ouro, just over the border in Mozambique, as well as bigger, decked vessels operating from Maputo. 

Big area

Isimangaliso’s coastline spans about 280km, from Mozambique in the north to Maphelane, south of the St Lucia estuary. It’s a big area to monitor and FADs are often difficult to detect, while fishing vessels often sneak close to shore in the early hours when no one is watching, reckons Olivier. 

Penn-Sawers acknowledged the Isimangaliso Park Authority has its work cut out. “Monitoring is essential and we are always looking for opportunities to improve our effectiveness, but there are factors hindering monitoring. There is a lack of resources — staff and budget — which have significant effects on monitoring, but monitoring does occur extensively, daily,” he said. 

Wood noted that the National Fisheries Department has three offshore marine patrol vessels but because they must cover South Africa’s entire offshore economic exclusion zone they cannot be in Isimangaliso regularly. 

The navy and the police play a role too. “Both the SA Navy and SAPS Borderline unit are responsible for patrolling our ocean borders and they conduct regular patrols in the area to focus on all illegal activities,” said Wood.

He said the last joint operation was in 2019, from the Sodwana Bay area. “Unfortunately, due to budgetary constraints, they are not as frequent as they should be.”

Although FADs appear to be on the increase, Parker noted that the “current number of FADs found within South Africa’s waters and reported to the department is low”.

Fine for some

What were the consequences for anyone caught using FADs in South African waters? 

The Marine Living Resources Act provides for fines of up to R2-million or five years in prison for contraventions of the Act. And equipment, including rods, nets, vessels and aeroplanes, found to be involved in illegal fishing operations may be confiscated. But whether this amounts to much of a deterrent is debatable.

“Unfortunately, the Act does not provide adequate enforcement, in terms of the Act it is only illegal to place a FAD into the water without a permit from the Fisheries Minister. It is not illegal to fish on an unregistered FAD,” said Wood.

“I am not aware of any prosecutions of any fishermen involving FADs.”

He recounted a case from May 2010, when working as a compliance manager for Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife in the Durban marine district. A charter fishing vessel based at Wilson’s Wharf was reported to have equipment on-board that appeared to be a FAD. 

ocean FAD

Sacks attached to the rope of the FAD. (Photo: Louis Olivier)

“I opened an investigation docket at the time, which was forwarded to the prosecutor, but no formal charges were brought against the skipper of the vessel. The skipper claimed that they were going to use the equipment as a large ‘flasher’ like that used by spear-fishers. At the time he was offering deep blue water spearfishing charters.”

Wood noted the skipper had applied for a FAD permit from the Department of Fisheries, but was turned down after the Port Captain objected because it would constitute a shipping hazard to vessels coming into the port of Durban.

Hard to prove

Another difficulty law enforcement faced was that FADs can be difficult to spot. “Unfortunately they are usually placed just below the surface and are thus only spotted accidentally by aircraft or divers who happen upon them,” said Penn-Sawers. 

“I wish more people were fined or arrested but the biggest problem is that the arresting officer must be able to prove that an angler of a boat is using the FAD to catch fish or is guilty of positioning the FAD. This is almost impossible — so finding and removing the FAD is possibly the best course of action. It is very frustrating.” 

Penn-Sawers believed that FADs found in South Africa were not being used to target tuna but rather dorado (aka mahi-mahi) and skipjack tuna, particularly off Isimangaliso’s coast. Although these species are prolific and their conservation status is classified as least concern — when FADs are put out to attract them, they end up entangling and causing suffering to many more species including sharks, whales and dolphins. 

What is being done internationally?

Regional fisheries management organisations exist to regulate regional fishing on the high seas. These organisations have the powers to establish conservation and management measures in specific areas and play crucial roles in the global governance of our fisheries. 

Parker said South Africa was a member of a number of these organisations, managing different types of fisheries, including three that deal with tuna and these were at the forefront of FAD management. The three are: the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tuna (Iccat); the Commission for the Conservation of Southern Bluefin Tuna; and the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. 

“South Africa has been vocal on the need for stricter management of FADs and was integral in the negotiations that culminated in new FAD management measures within Iccat. These included reducing the maximum number of FADs allowed to be deployed from 500 per vessel to 350 per vessel in 2020, and 300 per vessel in 2021, as well as a complete closure of the Iccat Convention Area to FAD-associated tuna fishing by purse seine vessels for two months in 2020 and three months in 2021.”

Some progress, then. But was it sufficient? 

In the FADs webinar, Gomez spoke on the management of FADs by regional fisheries management organisations (RFMOs) such as the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission. He believes they were not effectively managing FADs as they do not know how many FADs were out there, where they were or who they belonged to. 

Alex Hofford, a wildlife campaigner for WildAid, a conservation organisation, was also critical of the regional organisations during the FADs webinar.  

“Currently no tuna RFMOs require the recovery of drifting FADs or for vessels to take responsibility if the drifting FADs affect coastal areas. FADs can currently be discarded without consequence or reporting, which amounts to the intentional disposing of fishing gear categorised as litter, and should therefore be reported under the International Convention for Prevention of Pollution from Ships”. 

Unwelcome visitors

To what extent were the thousands of industrial drifting FADs and anchored FADs in the world’s oceans washing up on South African shores or more particularly, in KZN? 

“I do find a large number of ‘ghost’ fishing equipment that washes onto the beaches in my section of the iSimangaliso Marine Protected Area,” said Wood, “A number of them are possibly FADs that have drifted in the currents into South African waters from further north — Mozambique, Madagascar. They are not necessarily from illegal fishing vessels, as FADs are extensively used by the tuna fisheries, the Indian Ocean Tuna Commission has specific guidelines and regulations on the deployment of FADs.” 

Gordon, of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), noted that only one tuna fishery in the Indian Ocean using anchored FADs has been independently certified in terms of the MSC’s fisheries standards — the Maldives Pole and Line Skipjack fishery. While two tuna fisheries using drifting FADs were MSC certified: Echebastar Indian Ocean Purse Seine Skipjack Tuna fishery; and the CFTO Indian Ocean Purse Seine Skipjack fishery. 

“Historically, tuna regional fisheries management organisations have struggled to make timely decisions when faced with declines in stocks, increases in fishing effort, and changes in fishing practices,” said Gordon.

Much needed to be done

Gordon said that to achieve MSC certification all fisheries, regardless of their fishing techniques or gear, size and location, must be assessed for bycatch to see that it does not pose a long-term threat to any species within the ecosystem where they operate.

But he felt there was a place for FADs in sustainable fishing, provided they were monitored or managed correctly. 

He said the MSC encouraged tuna fisheries to drive improvements in FAD fishing. This included the use of biodegradable and non-entangling FADs. Improved tracking and data collection, licensing and registration would help too, along with decommissioning old FADs and modifying purse seine gear to allow non-target species to escape. DM/OBP

This article forms part of Roving Reporters biodiversity reporting project supported by  Internews Earth Journalism Network.

Katie Biggar is a marine biologist (BSc Honours – Marine Biology, from UKZN) and a freelance multimedia writer. She is passionate about environmental and ocean education. Biggar is participating in the NEW Pitch Stories of Hope filmmaking initiative that empowers youth from across Africa to make conservation-themed films. Her short documentary about her hometown and the next bird facing extinction in South Africa — the Montane blue swallow is currently in post-production. She is also working on several fiction projects as a writer and editor. 

[hearken id=”daily-maverick/8881″]

Absa OBP

Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • jcdville stormers says:

    Story of south african coastline,with goverment ministers like Gwede Mantashe and Barbara Creecy it’s like trying to swim up a block pipe!!!The goverment doesn’t worry and sells to the highest bidder,money talks ,conveniently the moral compass(non existent) goes,re Shell etc.

  • Johan Buys says:

    All trawlers should carry beacons, in theory we can see everybody’s location. The first time a trawler is found where it should not be and its beacon was ‘malfunctioning’, the vessel owner gets a very large fine. The next time that happens, the vessel is sunk.

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted

We would like our readers to start paying for Daily Maverick...

…but we are not going to force you to. Over 10 million users come to us each month for the news. We have not put it behind a paywall because the truth should not be a luxury.

Instead we ask our readers who can afford to contribute, even a small amount each month, to do so.

If you appreciate it and want to see us keep going then please consider contributing whatever you can.

Support Daily Maverick→
Payment options