Fishing is one of Jamaica’s biggest and most valuable industries but it has been under threat from illegal poachers targeting the already depleted waters for the last several years.
Finfish have been heavily overfished but the Caribbean’s shellfish and lobster supplies remains reasonably strong in Jamaica’s territorial waters. These attract poachers from neighbouring islands, namely Honduras and Nicaragua and even some poachers from Colombia.
The issue of illegal fishing affects countries across the Caribbean but Jamaica has tried numerous times to take action. Recently the Jamaica Lobster Harvesters' Association (JALHA) was established to draw further attention to the plight of the island’s fisheries industry.
Yet traditional methods of policing the waters for illegal fishing may not cut it anymore. Maybe drones can help?
After a number of tests, completed in late April, Jamaica’s Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, in conjunction with the Ministry of National Security, will expand its drone monitoring program with bigger, faster, more efficient UAVs that will police the waters from the skies.
The program has been funded and sponsored by a consortium of interested bodies including Rainforest Seafoods Limited, the Fisheries Management and Development Fund, Jamaica UAV, and the Marine Police.
The tests were carried out around the Pedro Cays, 50 miles southwest of Jamaica’s coast, which is home to the country’s most valuable fishing opportunities and is naturally, an area that is under threat.
“What we’ve done so far is test that the drone can operate on Pedro Cays and we have also tested that it can do live feed,” explains Paul Wright, chief executive officer of the fisheries division. “What we want to achieve is that we don’t have to wait for the drone to return with the data and have us go through all the data to find there’s something out there.
“The drone by itself is just one tool and that’s something I’ve always been stressing,” says Paul Wright. It will need a strong surface effort too as well as people monitoring the live feed.
The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries will engage with the Ministry of National Security who will look at what the ideal agency would be to operate the drones. “We need to test it with the appropriate maritime law enforcement agency,” Wright says, and his ministry hopes to do more tests with these agencies in the near future.
Long-term, the drone would be launched from a law enforcement platform with these authorities receiving the feed and acting upon it.
“What we would like to get to is providing the resources to the appropriate maritime enforcement agency.
“Even the drones we have now are not the ideal drones. The military would like drones that can go up for a much longer duration than what we have now.”
Poaching operations can be very skilled and meticulous while also expansive. According to Albert Williams, vice chairman of JALHA, large vessels enter Jamaican waters with hundreds of divers and scoop up large supplies of fish in just a couple of weeks. “No vessel from Jamaica can do in one season the quantities that these poachers do in two weeks,” he told the Jamaica Observer.
The next fishing season starts in July so many in Jamaica’s fishing industry are concerned for their future and if the 2015 season will yield enough stock for them to get by.
The fisheries division, headed up by Wright, will aim to conduct more tests soon with the Ministry of National Security and the military, who are better placed to operate the program.
However, the drones used by the fisheries division will not be the same drones used in the finished program as they are not appropriate.
Wright and his colleagues used a number of different drones in their tests to 3D map the skies around the Pedro Cays and test wind direction before deploying the UAVs that would monitor vessels.
The ideal drone would need the power and performance to last about a day at a time in the skies.
So when can we expect to see the drones take flight over Jamaica? “Understandably when it comes to timeline and when you’re working with the Ministry of National Security, it’s very difficult to give something like that,” says Wright.
“The military, although they were working along with us on this particular project, they tend to focus on the logistics part,” he says. “We can’t give a timeline until we’re at the higher level and a decision is taken as to how we will do it.”
Jamaica says it will not rely entirely on drones to monitor its waters. The relevant departments still want to introduce stiffer fines and a new Fisheries Bill to address several issues in the industry. There are large numbers employed in Jamaica’s fishing sector but there are widespread issues with these numbers as there are high non-compliance rates with the Fishing Industry Act. The last audit, conducted in 2008, show that of the 17,552 individuals that registered as fishers, only 1,928 actually had fishing licenses.
Jamaica is nonetheless working toward a more permanent solution. “We’re still early days yet,” says Wright.
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