First Joint Patrol of Scorpion Reef National Park Finds Evidence of Illegal Fishing Activity
July 5, 2021; By Molly Shane, Marine Program Officer
The Yucatán Peninsula, which separates the Gulf of Mexico from the Caribbean Sea, boasts a variety of rich and productive ecosystems, from coastal lagoons to mangrove forests to coral reefs. The region supports countless birds, reptiles, marine mammals, crustaceans, mollusks, and fish, many of which are commercially important for local communities. A number of protected areas have been established to safeguard the region’s nature and wildlife, including the Scorpion Reef National Park (SRNP) which protects the largest reef in the southern Gulf of Mexico.
Specific areas within SRNP allow permitted fishing and these areas are utilized by local fishers who primarily target octopus, grouper, and lobster. Last winter, in November 2020, Impact Blue, WildAid Marine, and the Regional Federation of Fishing Cooperatives in the Yucatán came together to support the spiny lobster fishery’s transition towards sustainability and to develop an effective, low-cost Marine Protection System (MPS) Plan to strengthen the enforcement of fisheries regulations in SRNP. The Yucatán spiny lobster project, developed by Impact Blue, aims to assist local fishing cooperatives with the transition from hook and dive lobster fishing to live lobster trapping, thereby reducing negative environmental impacts, improving fisher safety by avoiding decompression problems associated with diving, and increasing the value of lobster tail by removing intermediaries from the market.
While often overlooked, the enforcement of fisheries regulations is an important component of sustainable fisheries management. Strong enforcement is critical for ensuring new regulations are followed and preventing poaching in the high-value spiny lobster fishery. WildAid Marine’s MPS Plan identifies the key initiatives and strategies needed to strengthen the management of marine resources, as well as fisheries surveillance and enforcement in SRNP.
One key strategy recommended by WildAid Marine was the implementation of joint patrols in SRNP. On-the-water patrols are one of the most effective ways to find and catch illegal fishers. In June 2021, the first interinstitutional patrols of SRNP were completed with the primary goal of enforcing the seasonal “no-take” regulations that forbid fishers from harvesting specific species during set periods of time. The patrols were coordinated by the fishers of the “Centro Poniente” Cooperative Federation, the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy (SEMAR), the National Commission of Natural Protected Areas (CONANP), and the Yucatán Secretariat of Fisheries and Sustainable Aquaculture (SEPASY). WildAid Marine and Impact Blue assisted with coordination and provided logistical support, fuel, and equipment to carry out patrols in the area.
Beyond enforcing protected area and fisheries regulations, the joint patrols also served as an opportunity to prioritize the surveillance of biologically important areas, establish a dissuasive presence against illegal fishers, and strengthen cooperation and communication among key agencies and stakeholders of SRNP.
Over the course of seven days, the patrolling agencies identified, intercepted, and inspected a number of vessels, some of which were found to be violating area regulations. One vessel was found to be carrying permitted fish; however, the vessel had no registration, life jackets, or VHF radio communication tools and the crew had no fishing licenses. Due to the safety risk and lack of licenses, they were asked to return to their home port by officials.
Another small boat was later identified whose crew appeared to be diving for snail and lobster. Once the patrol vessel came close enough to be identifiable, the poachers fled, throwing their illegally harvested product overboard as they went. In addition to the poachers, other fishing vessels were identified outside of restricted zones, as were a number of tourist boats that were in possession of all necessary licenses and permits.
These joint patrols mark a significant step towards improving the long-term protection of Scorpion Reef National Park and sustainable management of local fisheries resources. Continued collaboration between Impact Blue, WildAid Marine, local government agencies, and fisheries cooperatives will be key to tackling illegal fishing in the region. Furthermore, it will be essential to control the illegal capture of lobster during the fishery’s ‘closed’ months in order for the fishery to make a full transition to more sustainable practices. Over the long term, this will help maintain the distribution, abundance, and recruitment of the lobster population, therefore ensuring a better catch for law-abiding fishers during the ‘open’ season.