Important things you should know before going fishing

  • 09 February 2016 | Stuart Dunlop, assistant scientist, ORI | Category: Conservation

Our ocean resources need to be protected for future sustainability, which is why regulations guide who fishes in our oceans, rivers and lakes, what they may or may not catch, when permits are required, why bag limits are in place, and why open and closed seasons are enforced, among other guidelines. If you enjoy fishing, this article is an invaluable source of information.

What is the difference between a recreational, commercial and subsistence fisher?

Recreational fishing or sport fishing, is fishing for pleasure or competition and excludes the selling of the catch.

Commercial fishing is fishing for profit by selling one’s catch. It's similar to most businesses and subject to normal business practices.

Subsistence fishing is fishing to provide food for one’s self and family when you have no other way to derive an income.

For further details on the exact definitions, consult the Marine Living Resources Act (No. 18 of 1998) plus amendments.

Does a recreational angler need a permit to fish in the ocean or in an estuary?

The harvesting of any living marine or estuarine organism in South Africa requires a licence or permit, whether it be for recreational, commercial or subsistence purposes. All forms of recreational angling (angling, spearfishing, cast-netting and collecting marine aquarium fish) along the South African coast require a permit, which can be bought from designated post offices and other authorised offices.

It is the duty of the permit-holder to familiarise him/herself with the regulations for each facet of fishing, much like one needs to know what the different signs on a road mean. 

Fishing is a popular pastime in South Africa. Are you familiar with the law? Photo courtesy of alemdag

What is a 'minimum legal size limit' and why do we have this in place for some fish species?

A minimum legal size limit is the size that an organism must be before it can be harvested. For example, shad/elf is a common South African fish species, which must grow to 30cm total length before it is allowed to be harvested. Like other organisms, a fish must reach sexual maturity before it can breed. Minimum legal size limits are generally set just above the length at which a species matures. This is done so that fish have a chance to breed and contribute to the population before being harvested.

Another example is the blacktail, which in South Africa reaches maturity at approximately 16 to 21cm total length. The current minimum legal size limit has therefore been set at 20cm total length. This should guarantee that at least a few of the fish smaller than 20cm will be able to contribute to the population. It is for this reason that it is important to know the different minimum size limits for the species you are likely to catch, and to release fish that are smaller. It is important to note that for minimum legal size limits, all fish are measured total length, i.e. in a straight line from the tip of the snout to the extreme end of the tail. 

What is a 'daily bag limit' and why do we have this in place for some fish species?

A daily bag limit is the maximum number of fish an angler is allowed to keep per day (24-hour period). For example, shad/elf has a bag limit of four per person per day (pppd), which helps prevent over-exploitation of the population. Daily bag limits also promote equitability by preventing good anglers from taking more than their fair share, and allowing other anglers a chance to catch some fish.

Once you reach your bag limit for one species (e.g. four shad) for the day, you may also catch other species such as blacktail, which has daily bag limit of five pppd. It is, however, very important to note that there is an overall recreational bag limit of 10 fish pppd, irrespective of the species. So, for example, under current regulations, you could catch three shad, three blacktail and four karranteen, totalling 10 fish for the day, even though you don't reach the individual bag limits for each of those species. 

What is a closed season?

A closed season is a period of time during the year when a specific fish (also crayfish/East Coast rock lobster) may not be harvested. Closed seasons are set to prevent exploitation of living organisms when they are most vulnerable to capture. For example, certain species gather closely in spawning aggregations during early spring. This makes them very easy to catch and harvesting them at this time may prevent spawning from taking place.

Shad/elf has a closed season from 1 October to 30 November each year. At this time of year large numbers of mature shad/elf aggregate off the coast of KwaZulu-Natal to spawn and can be easily caught by anglers in large numbers. Removing these fish at this time of the year is detrimental to the population, as they will not get a chance to contribute to the next generation. Other fish species that have a closed season include galjoen (15 October to the last day of February the following year) and red steenbras (1 September to 30 November).

What does 'no sale' mean and why can’t a recreational angler sell the fish he catches?

No fish may be sold or offered for sale by the holder of a recreational fishing permit. The main reason for this regulation is to prevent recreational anglers from directly competing with commercial fishermen who have to apply to government for a specific right to fish, as well as to prevent overfishing. As a recreational angler, because you do not derive an income from selling fish, when fish stocks are low you can simply keep on fishing as it does not affect your livelihood.

A commercial fisherman, on the other hand, would be forced to stop fishing as it would no longer be economically viable to continue, which would allow the stocks a chance to recover. Some fish species have been identified as being extremely vulnerable to commercial exploitation. For this reason they have been classified as recreational species, and are therefore not allowed to be caught and sold by commercial fishermen.

Top five rock and surf species caught on the KwaZulu-Natal coast


Shad/elf is the most important species caught by recreational shore anglers along the entire eastern seaboard of South Africa. Shad/elf accounts for approximately 28-80% of the catch in the KwaZulu-Natal (KZN) recreational shore fishery.

Shad or elf. Photo by ORI

Daily bag limit 4 pppd
Minimum legal size limit 30cm total length
Closed season 1 Oct to 30 Nov
No sale in KZN  
Maximum size recorded 100cm total length
Maximum weight recorded 10kg
Maximum age recorded 10 years



Although a relatively small fish (< 30cm), karranteen form an important part of the overall catch in KZN and are ranked as the second-most important species by number after shad/elf. They are also heavily utilised by subsistence fishers, and play an important role as grazers in the inshore marine environment.

Karranteen or strepie. Photo by ORI

Daily bag limit                        10 pppd
Minimum legal size limit 15cm total length
Closed season None
Maximum size recorded 30cm total length
Maximum weight recorded 0.7kg
Maximum age recorded 6 years



This is the third-most important fish species caught in the KZN shore fishery. It has a slow growth rate and is known to reach over 20 years of age. Despite this slow growth rate, blacktail is an extremely abundant species along the eastern seaboard of South Africa, and appears to be capable of handling relatively high fishing pressure. This is probably due to its small size/age at maturity, adaptable reproduction, high breeding output and generalist lifestyle.

Blacktail. Photo by ORI

Daily bag limit 5 pppd
Minimum legal size limit 20cm total length
Closed season None
No sale recreational species  
Maximum size recorded 40cm total length
Maximum weight recorded 2.7kg
Maximum age recorded 21 years



Stonebream has become an increasingly important shore angling species caught along the KZN coast, particularly since numbers of other more popular species have decreased in the past 20 years.

Stonebream or stinker. Photo by ORI

Daily bag limit 5 pppd
Minimum legal size limit None
Closed season None
No sale recreational species  
Maximum size recorded 50cm total length
Maximum weight recorded 2.6kg
Maximum age recorded 10 years


Cape stumpnose/silver bream

A very important fish species caught in the Eastern Cape and KZN. Of all the species discussed above, Cape stumpnose is the only one that is estuarine-dependent, where juveniles use estuaries as nursery areas. After being resident in an estuary for approximately 1-2 years, sub-adults migrate into the marine environment. Degradation of estuaries along much of the South African coastline may have resulted in an overall reduction in biomass of this species.

Cape stumpnose or silver bream. Photo by ORI

Daily bag limit                                5 pppd
Minimum legal size limit 20cm total length
Closed season None
No sale recreational species  
Maximum size recorded 40-45cm total length
Maximum weight recorded 2.4kg
Maximum age recorded Unknown


To make informed decisions when purchasing fish to eat, visit


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