Conservation Tools: Radar System Could be Instrumental in Protecting Sharks

© Photo Rodolphe Holler

Editor's note: This is the latest post in our “Conservation Tools” blog series, which spotlights how cutting-edge technology is helping scientists explore and protect the natural world.

The only sounds are those of seabirds, the wind and the Pacific Ocean striking the ship. On the horizon is the island for which they have been searching the past few days. Its 1795, and explorer George Vancouver describes what he sees upon his arrival to Cocos Island:

“[sharks] assembled in the bay in very large shoals, constantly attending on our boats in all their motions […]” (excerpted from Callum Roberts’ 2007 book “The Unnatural History of the Sea”)

Explorers like Vancouver began visiting Cocos in the 1520s. Soon pirates came too, using the island as a temporary secret storage site for stolen goods.

Centuries later, the human presence around this remarkable island has evolved, but retains a common thread.

The “pirates” of this century do not come to hide treasure. They come to steal fish. But with the help of new technology, modern-day explorers — scientists like me — are teaming up with the Costa Rican government and local partners to stop them.

A Haven for Sharks

When Costa Rica claimed Cocos Island in 1869, not only did the country take control of an immense exclusive economic zone, it also claimed a unique marine site.

Cocos hosts more than 40% of the marine species found only in Costa Rica. The waters of the national park hold one of the highest numbers of marine predators in all the oceans — including record numbers of hammerhead sharks that migrate through it.

Thanks to the work of a national and international team of scientists, in 2011 local authorities declared a new marine protected area (MPA) around the existing national park. Together, the two areas account for 1.1 million hectares (2.7 million acres) of protected waters.

This new area was created for two main reasons. First, new scientific data proved the existence of underwater seamounts teeming with life. Second, illegal fishers have put increased pressure on the national park. They come mainly seeking yellowfin tuna. However, other species, mainly thresher and hammerhead sharks, are also victims of both targeted and unintentional capture.

Sharp declines in global shark populations have already set off alarms within the conservation community. But marine species aren’t the only victims of ocean overexploitation. With fewer fish in the ocean, fishers have to go further each day to make a living — and often don’t catch as much. If sharks continue to disappear, the tourism industry will also take a hit; a recent study showed that shark-related tourism adds about US$ 314 million per year to the global economy.

The national park is a no-take zone, protecting the fragile reefs and shallow water ecosystems from all human activity. After an eight-year process, the newer MPA has established careful fishing regulations to decrease impact on species like sea turtles and sharks.

But the act of creating MPAs isn’t enough; surveillance of these waters is a complex, expensive challenge. Local rangers patrol with plenty of courage but limited resources.

There are only two small boats available for patrolling activities. Although there are more than 25 rangers, they are responsible for all aspects of park management, and so cannot devote adequate time to surveillance.

On the Radar

For more than 10 years, CI has been a partner of Cocos Marine Conservation Area (ACMIC), which oversees management of the two MPAs and the island itself.

We have worked together with national and international organizations to strengthen management capacity, provide gear and tools for local authorities and promote collaboration between Cocos and other island-based protected areas in the Eastern Tropical Pacific Seascape, such as Coiba, Malpelo and Galápagos.

For the past three years, we have teamed with Forever Costa Rica, Oceans 5 (an organization that includes Leonardo DiCaprio among its main partners) and supporting government agencies to install a high-tech radar system in Cocos.

This tool will be part of a larger radar system which will help authorities enforce illegal activities that threaten environmental, food and national security. As we have learnt from Interpol, illegal activities do not occur independently in our oceans; it is not unusual to discover organized crime rings behind activities like illegal fishing, drug trafficking and other illegal trades.

The radar will detect boats as far as 32 miles [51 kilometers] from the island, detecting illegal entry to the island’s waters. It will send live information via satellite to the National Coastguard Service and Ministry of Environment on the mainland.

By detecting the movement and direction of vessels, radar operators will be able to tell if a boat is just passing through an area or fishing in it. Even more, the radar could be key in future search and rescue operations. In the next five years, it is expected that information from the radar will be combined with data coming from monitoring devices on board boats, allowing them to be precisely identified.

The rangers of Cocos Island do a remarkable job managing and conserving what has become one of the best-preserved marine sites on the planet. This radar system will make all of their jobs easier; it’s an important step forward in Costa Rica’s efforts to take control of its seas.

The radar blueprints are ready, and work to install the system is underway. Meanwhile, more explorers than pirates continue to visit Cocos, bringing new knowledge and hope.

Marco Quesada is the country director for CI-Costa Rica.