The Wildlife Conservation Society has launched a 1-year pilot project which could change the way the maritime authorities police the country's seas.

The environmental NGO is implementing a vessel management system for commercial fishing boats, which allows participating fisher-folks to be tracked in real-time using GPS and satellites.

Among other benefits, the addition of 85 mobile transceiver units allows the Coast Guard and the Port Authority to have direct access to the fishermen, in the event that there is some sort of maritime emergency. Additionally, it allows the Fisheries Department to ensure that the fishermen are conducting their operations in allowed fishing zones. It also helps the authorities deter illegal fishing within replenishment zones.

In other parts of the world, the use of mobile transceiver units is a legal requirement, but in Belize, the Wildlife Conservation Society is testing it out.

They invited the media to the launch of the program, and Daniel Ortiz reports:

This device you're looking at is called a Mobile Transceiver Unit. It is used in vessel management systems to keep constant tracking on boats, and their captains. With the use of this unit, GPS and satellite connectivity, a vessel's exact position in the world can be known in real-time, at 15-minute intervals.

Julio Maaz - Sustainable Fisheries Coordinator, WCS
"The device that we're using is an AP-3 rugged device from Iridium Satellite services. The unit itself has a built-in solar panel, that allows the unit to charge. It has a battery that holds a charge for 40 days."

"These devices are being installed on sailboats and skiffs. The primary purpose is safety and security at sea, and also responsible fishing, to ensure that the vessels that are fishing within the zones that they're authorized to fish. The device provides a position, via satellite transmission, every 15 minutes of the location of the device, which is very important in terms of saving lives, and being more efficient at how our authorities are responding to any distress out at sea."

The Wildlife Conservation Society is teaming up the Belize Port Authority, the Fisheries Department, the Belize Coast Guard, and local fishermen to launch a pilot project installing mobile transceivers on 85 commercial fishing vessels. These are all fishermen who have volunteered to participate in the project. The Maritime regulators are excited to see it meet success.

Nicole Auil Gomez - Country Director, WCS
"Working with the Fisheries Department primarily, our 3 targets include having a centralized, online fisher and fishing vessel licensing system, recording commercial fish landings through digital technology. In this case, we use an application called Our Fish app."

"The outputs from these integrated data collection systems are geared to be used in spatial planning, compliance, and monitoring of management, and should strengthen the ability to understand and manage fishery activity and empower decision-making."

Rigoberto Quintana - Senior Fisheries Officer, Belize Fisheries
"Globally, the use of MTUs have been a cost-effective tool in combatting IUU fishing, resulting in improved monitoring, control, and surveillance of fishing operations. The use of MTUs have been primarily focused on commercial fishing vessels in the high seas, and international water, and is a legal requirement under various regional fisheries management organizations. The use of MTUs on small-scale fishing vessels is still in the trial stage globally, what we see today."

"The pilot project will definitely provide the Department with information regarding the compliance of fishing operations within authorized fishing areas. And most importantly, it seeks to improve the safety and security of fishers at sea. It provides security at sea for fishers who might become stranded, in cases of emergencies, or those that might become victims of piracy and armed robbery."

Merlene Bailey-Martinez - Commissioner, Belize Port Authority
"We are required to respond when there is a maritime emergency. So, this not outside of our responsibility at all. In fact, it enhances our ability to respond appropriately and to engage the coast guard, when there is an emergency."

Lt. Roque Canul - Operations Officer, Belize Coast Guard
"In addition to our extensive responsibilities in the maritime domain, effective search, and rescue response is a mandate that we constantly strive to perfect. Due to its dynamics, this platform will certainly enhance this capability for the Belize Coast Guard."

The Mobile Transceiver Unit comes with an important feature which ensures that if there is any mishap on the seas, these partner agencies will not miss the distress call:

Julio Maaz - Sustainable Fisheries Coordinator, WCS
"It also comes equipped with a panic button. The panic button has the capability of alerting authorities of any distress at sea. If the cable is cut from the device, it also sends an alert, to the authorities. And, if the device is removed from the vessel, it also sends an alert. There's an anti-tampering sensor on the device that will also alert of any tampering with the unit."

"Fishermen have been looking for us, have been contacting us to get the device installed on their vessels. The device obviously has a cost. The unit itself costs $590 US dollars, and the cost for data transmission per month is $60. However, you get a position, no matter where you are in the world."

"We're funding the 85 units that are being installed, and we're also covering 1 year of data transmission. We're hoping to work with the different organizations, to see how we can assist fishermen to pay for the cost of data transmission in subsequent years."

The Wildlife Conservation Society is already planning for the possible expansion of this pilot project, where 100 more vessels will be outfitted with these mobile transceiver units.

Channel 7