Old Trick, New Book

The unlikely story of a conservation organization and a re-packaged technology solution to root out illegal fishing

In the 1990s, tuna fishermen were depleting Ecuadorian waters, especially around the bountiful Galapagos. In response, the government of Ecuador established a 133,000-square-kilometer reserve around the archipelago, barring Ecuador's industrial fleet, the largest in the eastern Pacific, from roaming freely around the islands. The reserve was a victory for conservationists, on paper at least. 

In fact, it created a new set of challenges. Prior to the establishment of the reserve, the Galapagos National Park Service had been responsible for securing only the terrestrial territory of the archipelago. Suddenly, they had a new mandate: to patrol and protect the ocean around the islands, an area roughly the size of the state of New York. And yet, the Park Service had no maritime equipment or training and little precedent to guide them. Over the next decade, the government and international partners worked to equip the rangers with the tools needed to meet their new mandate. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
Prior to the establishment of the reserve, the Galapagos National Park Service had been responsible for securing only the terrestrial territory of the archipelago. Suddenly, they had a new mandate: to patrol and protect the ocean around the islands.

Rising to the Challenge 

While the Park Service began to acquire equipment, primarily in the form of in-kind donations, and provide its rangers with basic training to manage the marine reserve, they received little training to maintain the new equipment, which quickly fell into disuse. In 2004, the U.S. Agency for International Development donated a small fixed-wing aircraft, the Seawolf, to service the reserve. "The Seawolf itself was great for patrols," remembers Marcel Bigue, the Marine Program Director at WildAid, "but it was expensive to operate." The plane requires a pilot, a mechanic, a hangar, insurance, and fuel. As a result, the promising addition to the force couldn't be deployed to its full potential. 

By 2006, the Park Service's fleet had grown from one vessel to 13, but most were not operative due to a lack of maintenance systems. There was little uniformity in the assets which made them extremely difficult to maintain. What's more, the Park Service often had to conduct multi-day patrols just to cover the entirety of the reserve. "If you're going to send out an oceanic boat for 10 days," Mr. Bigue points out, "it's expensive, especially on a reserve as large as the Galapagos." A decade into the endeavor, the Park Service had plenty of equipment, but lacked the systems to put that equipment into full effect. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society
A decade into the endeavor, the Park Service had plenty of equipment, but lacked the systems to put that equipment into full effect.

Enter WildAid 

That same year, WildAid and Conservation International began working with the Ecuadorian government to design an enforcement plan for the reserve. Up against a Park Service with limited enforcement capacity, the industrial fishing fleet had no incentive to stop fishing in the Galapagos' abundant waters. The reserve was too large to patrol using traditional means only, and the Park Service struggled to monitor the 133,000-square-kilometer expanse. The team decided that – given limited resources  the rangers' time would be better spent doing targeted patrols, rather than random ones. First and foremost, they needed an efficient way to identify the vessels fishing illegally, monitor the reserve, and inform the targeted deployment of the Park Service's large yet under-utilized patrol fleet. 

Using a satellite-based vessel monitoring system called VMS, the team could monitor industrial-sized vessels in real time within and outside the reserve. If they placed these devices on vessels over 20 tons, the Park Service and Navy would know when vessels were entering the reserve unauthorized and could more strategically deploy their assets. Instead of conducting 10-day patrols, rangers could stay at port until they saw someone entering a restricted area. While the technology seemed like a perfect match, the team realized that they would have to go one step further to make implementation a success: change regulations to mandate cooperation from commercial fisheries. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society

Not the New Kid on the Block

The caveat with vessel monitoring systems is that they require vessels to keep their transceivers turned on. Much like the Seawolf, the technology itself is great, but without the right incentives, it doesn't fully work. Here's where WildAid got creative. The government of Ecuador has a long-standing policy of subsidizing fuel. WildAid helped craft a regulation that tied fuel subsidies to the status of vessels' transceivers, creating an incentive for fishermen to use the technology. If vessels didn't tamper with their transceivers, they would continue to receive subsidized fuel; if they tinkered with their transceivers, they would lose the benefit, a potentially ruinous economic blow. 

The vessel monitoring system wasn't new to fisheries management, but WildAid and its partners tailored the technology to fit the needs of the Galapagos. Typically, fisheries management organizations mandate that vessels ping their location every six hours. In Ecuador, vessels are now required to ping their location every hour, giving rangers a better sense of where they actually are and what they're doing. By pairing the monitoring system with the right regulations, the Park Service was able to virtually eliminate the illegal industrial-scale fishing that had been plaguing the new reserve.

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society

Take Two 

In the course of its work, WildAid encountered new challenges. "You're never going to have one technology that will do it all for you," explains Mr. Bigue. Fishermen bent on fishing in the Galapagos have found ways to circumvent the monitoring system. They use the large, tracked vessels to tow four to six smaller boats to the edge of the reserve. The smaller vessels, which are not required to report their location, enter the reserve with longlines, fishing lines that consist of 100 hooks each. Several hours later, they return to the mothership waiting on the edge of the reserve, their coolers full of fish. WildAid recently started working with the Galapagos National Park Service, Sea Shepherd, and World Wildlife Fund to implement another tracking system better suited to monitoring small vessels, including the artisanal fishing fleet, which is still allowed to sustainably fish in the reserve. 

What did Mr. Bigue and his team learn in the Galapagos? Technology is just one piece of the puzzle. Coupled with the right intel, training, and strategies driven by those on the ground, institutions can ensure that they have the right regulations in place to correct the trajectory of fisheries management. That, not high-tech, is the silver bullet. 

ENRIC SALA/Courtesy of National Geographic Society

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