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January 31, 2014

Spy Game - Thoughts on Drones and Sport Fishing

The idea of an eye in the sky is no longer pie in the sky, and for better or worse, may be the shape of things to come over our waters.

For many anglers, getting away from it all is a dominant factor in why we fish.

Now it seems that just when we think we’re far from the madding crowds, casting quietly in a remote area or trolling offshore with no boats in sight, we might not be alone after all.

This is where we hear the deep, booming voice of the late Don Lafontaine (the voice of so many movie trailers).
In a world where you think you’re “just fishing,” you’ve become the target of surveillance (cue ominous music), your every action watched and recorded by drones, far overhead.... There’s nowhere to run.

While that is admittedly a bit dramatic, the idea of an eye in the sky isn’t just pie in the sky: It might be the shape of things to come, for better and/or worse.

Earlier this year, government drones recorded violations of fisheries law in the Dry Tortugas; NOAA charged the perpetrators. The Pacific nation of Palau is forging ahead with plans to use drones to patrol its vast ocean waters.

Heck, you and I can buy our own photo and video drones — now, even on amazon.com. Granted, these are not the ultrasophisticated drones of military ops, but even these smaller, radio-controlled hobbyist versions can do the job.

The idea using of drones to “spy” on citizens is repugnant to many, especially those already suspicious of big government. But what if those citizens happen to be poaching fish or game? What if they’re illegally setting gill nets under cover of darkness? I suspect the immediate reaction of most anglers would be: Nail the bastards any way you can.

And of course, many of us complain bitterly (and correctly) at the lack of funding allowing sufficient enforcement of fisheries laws — way too few officers trying to enforce areas way too vast. But the use of comparably inexpensive drones could make the breach of fisheries laws much more difficult than is the case now.

Some worry about the flip side: officials being able to watch sport fishermen who are not engaged in illegal activity. That might seem like a violation of unreasonable search laws, but in fact, courts have ruled that it isn’t. Those trying to protect marine resources might argue that the only way they can spot illegal activity is to look at everyone on the water (rather like random fishing-license and creel checks).

Lots of anglers would probably say, in so many words: “Go ahead and look at me. I’ve got nothing to hide, since you won’t see me doing anything illegal, and if it helps you spot those who are breaking the law, great.”

But drones do present an opportunity for abuse, and a case can be made for caution and oversight (pun not intentional).

Already, PETA is employing them (“Hunters Watch Out: PETA’s Drones Are Flying” trumpets its website in a recent post) to watch for illegal activity, and anglers could be next. But beyond illegal activity, what else might their drones record? A close-up video of an angler clubbing a bloody mahi in the cockpit? That’s the right and humane thing to do with a fish being kept for food, yet taken out of context, it could be used to show how brutal anglers are.

Or might unscrupulous tournament anglers use them to spy on others to gain an advantage?

Will increasing use of drones account for an increasing number of anglers carrying guns in their boats and endlessly debating which caliber is best for “drone kills”?

And will the Federal Aviation Administration restrict drones? I understand it’s studying the issue.

It will be interesting to see how all this plays out.

A startup company wants to sell you its DroneShield, designed to warn you when a drone is approaching. I think I’ll have to invest in one of those, just so when nature calls, I can unzip at the gunwale with some peace of mind.