Unsustainable fishing in Belize has placed growing pressure on local anglers and the country's celebrated coral reef systems. Decades of decline has led to the introduction of catch limits and even the European Union blacklisting seafood imports from Belize for a perceived lack of action against illegal fishing. In an effort to better regulate the industry, the Belize Fisheries Department has begun using drones to monitor coastal areas for unlicensed and unlawful activity.

Working with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) and Conservation Drones, an organization that develops low-coast UAVs for conservation efforts, the Fisheries Department began testing the vehicles in July 2013. Following full implementation of the program last month, the drones will now be used to locate fishing vessels operating illegally in marine protected areas.

"Belize has been a leader in the establishment of marine protected areas, including the world-famous Glover’s Reef Marine Reserve, but fishing regulations are difficult to enforce on the open sea," says Julio Maaz, Communities Fisheries Coordinator for WCS’s Marine Program in Belize. "Drones offer a means of improving the rate of detection of illegal activities at a fraction of the cost required for patrol vessels."

The drones in question are able to fly autonomously for more than an hour at a time within a range of 50 km (31 mi). Capable of capturing high-resolution photo and video, the aircraft will enable government officials to monitor areas along the coastline that are often obscured by mangrove forests, where fishermen stash illegal catches. By using the drones to detect such activity, authorities can more efficiently conduct searches and deploy patrol vessels.

For all the privacy issues raised by drones, the technology holds serious potential in surveying land for conservation purposes. Earlier this year, California-based drone company Airware announced plans to use unmanned aircraft to monitor poachers and preserve an ailing White Rhino population in Kenya. Conservation Drones itself has also used the vehicles to perform research on the forests and wildlife of North Sumatra, Indonesia.

It is hoped that this venture can not only prevent unsustainable fishing in Belize, but prove a model for new conservation methods across the globe.

"The world’s oceans are in dire need of low cost innovations for improving the cost efficiency and effectiveness of enforcement efforts," says Dr Caleb McClennen, Executive Director of WCS Marine Conservation. "This represents an exciting pilot program for Belize, the wider Caribbean, and near-shore marine parks and fisheries around the world.”

You can see some footage captured by the drones in the video below.

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