Scripps Institution to help forecast fishing activity in Palau’s waters

Image: Travis Schramek
Image: Travis Schramek – Ngederrak Reef, a marine protected area adjacent to the main harbour of Palau

Researchers at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California San Diego have created a system to forecast fishing activity in the exclusive economic zone (EEZ) of the Pacific island country of Palau.

Palau is preparing to close most of its territorial waters under the National Marine Sanctuary programme, which researchers say could prove to be crucial for future monitoring and enforcement of that area.

Palau, despite having only 458 square kilometres of land, has territorial waters totaling more than 600,000 square kilometres, an area greater than the size of mainland France.

Scripps researchers had partnered with the Republic of Palau and the US Office of Naval Research on a study to understand how fishing locations change in response to environmental conditions over multiple years.

Most countries like Palau require licenced fishing vessels to be equipped with vessel monitoring systems (VMS) that continuously track ship movement. Using VMS data gathered during the 2011-2016 timeframe, the researchers analysed more than one million vessel locations to develop fishing tracks that were used to identify fishing patterns and hotspots.

The vessel activity was assessed against past ocean conditions to estimate where fishing activity is most likely to occur at any given time.

The study is part of a large-scale strategy begun in 2015 with Palau’s Monitoring, Control, and Surveillance (MCS) plan to implement protections and subsequent monitoring and enforcement strategies that will be used by government officials.

The Scripps researchers claim that, aside from being used to monitor fishers, the findings can help Palau’s resource managers better understand migratory and pelagic species like tuna that are some of the most commercially important fisheries in the tropical Pacific.

Offshore species are also the target of many illegal fishing operations; by understanding the habitat of fish stocks based on legal fishing, researchers believe they can help predict where illegal fishing may occur and the enforcement agencies can target these areas with various surveillance technologies.

This method could reportedly help in developing the most optimal location for fishing closures or to create real-time forecasting systems to support surveillance aircraft or patrol boats.

The study may also hold value for other nations in the Pacific that have large EEZs relative to their country size but have few enforcement resources, the Scripps researchers add.

For Palau, the next steps will involve creating live forecasting systems that predict where fishing activity will likely take place based on real-time ocean conditions.

The country plans to close 80 per cent of its EEZ by 2020, with nearshore areas open for domestic use and most offshore pelagic fishing grounds no longer accessible to foreign fleets.

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