Isla del Cocos data used to fight illegal fishing in reserves worldwide

Data on illegal fishing around the Isla del Cocos has provided another tool to fight poachers worldwide.

Researchers at the ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University found that illegal fishing was concentrated in a few hotspots and really ramped up during specific lunar phases of some months.

They said they think that the use of data can help other enforcement workers at distant offshore marine reserves. Their effort has just been published in a scientific journal

Researchers examined five years’ worth of data collected from the World Heritage-listed Parque Nacional Isla del Cocos. The island is a unique marine protected area in the Pacific Ocean about 550 kilometers (340 miles) off the west coast of Costa Rica. Much of the protected areas is under water.

From the records researchers were able to identify illegal fishing patterns and predict both when and where illegal fishing was likely to happen.

Researcher Bob Pressey from the coral reef center says authorities could use this knowledge to match patrols to the time and place when illegal fishing is most likely to take place.

“Using a targeted approach helps authorities catch and deter illegal fishers, while saving money on patrols,” Pressey said.

“Rather than just hoping you can catch illegal fishers effectively by random patrols, we have used previous patrols to look for patterns which tell us when and where people fish illegally,” added Joshua Cinner, another researcher.

Study lead author Adrian Arias says the model of predicting illegal patterns from old records can be used to increase the success of patrols in other locations.

“Our research in Costa Rica showed how a systematic and periodic analysis of patrol records can help to increase the probability of catching illegal fishers. This could be done pretty much anywhere that patrol data are available,” he says.

Cinner added that by better targeting limited resources, authorities have a greater chance of successfully protecting marine parks.

“Targeting resources is particularly important for developing countries such as Costa Rica, which have taken on the conservation challenge but don’t have the same funding to ensure compliance as a country such as Australia.”

Illegal fishing in marine reserves is a major focus at the International Convention of Biological Diversity World Parks Congress, which has opened in Sydney.

Marine reserves are the most common strategy used to protect and maintain marine ecosystems around the world.

The international convention aims to have 10 per cent of the world’s marine areas protected by 2020.

Many countries are contributing to this target by protecting remote, offshore areas. For example, the United States recently created the world’s largest fully protected marine reserve, covering almost 1.27 million square kilometers in the central Pacific Ocean.

But scientists are concerned that while a great deal of effort is being made to create reserves, many countries are simply not able to enforce the laws that are supposed to protect them.

“Enforcement and compliance issues for large off-shore marine parks are fundamentally different to near-shore protected areas,” Cinner said.

The biggest problems facing countries trying to enforce offshore marine reserves is their distance from land and the difficulty and cost of patrolling large tracts of ocean, he said.

“The distances to these areas can be very large. They are a long way from prying eyes and quite often the regulations are such that you have to actually catch people illegally fishing to prosecute them,” Cinner added.

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