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Watch How Drones Fight Pirate Fishing From the Sky

Belize confronts illegal activity with new technology.

Watch: Inside the Struggle to Save an Endangered Grouper Species WATCH: Follow dedicated wildlife authorities in Belize as they strive to the protect the endangered Nassau grouper.

Belize has long struggled to control illegal fishing both in its waters and by vessels flagged to its country. But efforts to turn the tide are starting to pay off, says Julio Maaz, who serves as a fisheries coordinator in the country with the nonprofit group Wildlife Conservation Society.

In March 2014, the European Union suspended all seafood imports from Belize, saying the country had not acted forcefully enough to prevent illegal fishing, also known as pirate fishing. But the country responded by upping its enforcement activities (including by deploying the coast guard), and the European Union restored its trade relationship by the end of that year.

Further progress has been made since then, but the country still has a ways to go, says Maaz. Belize's multimillion coastal fishing industry is made up of 2,700 registered fishermen, with 650 vessels. The country's international fleet is made up of 33 vessels.

Yet the country only has 70 fisheries enforcement officers, who must patrol its 240 miles of Caribbean coast and more than 200 islands, as well as contend with the international fleet.

Globally, an estimated 20 percent of all fish are caught illegally, through a combination of fishing in restricted areas, subverting quotas and seasonal limits, and using banned gear. The fish are shipped around the world and sold to existing markets, where most buyers have no idea that the food they are purchasing is stolen goods.

But Maaz has been working with Belize's fishing officials to test new technologies to catch and deter lawbreakers and improve transparency and sustainability.

Eyes in the Sky

Starting in 2014, WCS, the government of Belize, and U.S.-based nonprofit Conservation Drones began a series of tests to survey the country's waters with unmanned aerial vehicles, to look for illegal fishing and other illicit activity, such as drug trafficking. The first drones used were Skywalker models from the U.S. company Event 38.

The fixed-wing drones, made of Styrofoam, were light but fragile. They crashed and broke easily, leading to more unsuccessful than successful missions. The drones didn't have the capability to transmit live video, so they had to be retrieved before a user could learn what they saw. (See "5 Surprising Drone Uses.")

Starting in September of this year, the Skywalker drones were phased out for a newer model, the Solo Quadcoptor by 3DR, which is a favorite of aerial photographers. The new drones are made of more rugged material and can transmit live video.

"We are seeing an obvious deterrence; illegal fishermen are avoiding certain sites," Maaz says of the new drone tests. "Fisheries officers say the drones are giving them more information, particularly about areas that might be dangerous. It helps them prevent a wild goose chase."

The coastline of Belize is sculpted with many inlets and mangrove forests, which pirates can take advantage of. But now officials can use the drones to scout out treacherous territory ahead. The devices are small and quiet enough that they usually avoid detection.

Now, Maaz hopes the used Skywalker drones can be repurposed for forestry conservation work elsewhere in Belize.

Bigger Picture

In addition to new technology, WCS has been working with fishermen to reform the industry in Belize. For the past few years, the advocacy group has championed a new "managed access" plan for the country.

The multifaceted approach includes better tracking of fishing activity and assignment of fishermen to specific zones. Catch limits are in the pipeline, probably as a mixture of quotas and seasonal limits.

The ultimate goal is to "foster stewardship of fishing areas, so fishermen feel that it is their property," says Maaz. "By so doing they will report illegal activities more frequently, discourage their peers from fishing illegally, and fish more responsibly."

The fishing industry hasn't always embraced all the changes enthusiastically, but the process is ongoing. To help ease the way, WCS is also developing cell phone tracking systems and apps that fishermen can use to easily track their catches.

Few fishermen relish the idea of additional restrictions or paperwork, but some are recognizing that they can also fetch a premium price by proving to buyers that their catch was made honestly and sustainably.

"We are also selling the technology as a safety measure for fishermen, because we can respond more adequately in case of emergencies," says Maaz.