The Cabo de Palos Marine Reserve is the oldest marine reserve in the region of Murcia, Spain. Its status as a protected area since 1995 has favoured a thriving marine life. Murcia is a region of exceptional marine biodiversity, which enjoys a high level of protection, including 12 Natura 2000 sites and two Marine Protected Areas (MPA).
Fisheries and tourism are important activities in the area, both of which are highly dependent on the quality of the marine ecosystem and biodiversity.
Unfortunately, the very same underwater environment that made the reserve an important tourist destination for marine activities has also made it a target for poachers: a problem that local fishers are helping to tackle.
Murcia’s Fisheries Local Action Groups (FLAG) has identified combatting illegal fishing as one of the main priorities in marine reserves. Much illegal fishing takes place during the summer months, when tourism leads to high demand in restaurants for local fish and shellfish, putting heavy pressure on certain valuable species such as grouper, lobster and pollock.
The Cabo de Palos marine reserve is permanently patrolled by a company contracted by the regional administration. However, poaching continues to take place, with illegal fishers simply adapting to avoid the regular patrols. That is why, in 2018, the FLAG decided to fund a new initiative from the Cofradía of Cartagena (local fishing organisation). Each year one of the seven boats of the Cofradía authorised to operate in the marine reserve undertakes surveillance of the area. Through the EU funded project “Islas Hormigas” (the name refers to a group of small islands within the reserve), the FLAG pays financial compensation to that specific boat, so that it can be fully dedicated to strengthening surveillance activities in the reserve during the most critical months of the year. Upon finding illegal activity, the fishers signal to the potential poacher that he is operating in waters where fishing is forbidden and then alert the region’s coast guards to officially sanction the poachers. This has led not only to ensuring better prosecution of illegal fishing; it is also a deterrent to poachers that regularly committed infringements in the area, as the ongoing project is well advertised.
This collaboration between the regional administration and the local fishers has made a real difference to enforcing protection measures. It has also enabled the fishing sector itself to take ownership and responsibility of fishing control. The professional fishers know which boats are allowed to fish, when and where – and which should not be fishing. Thanks to this project, fishers have been empowered to protect their resource, and experienced how it pays off through improved fish stocks: "The marine reserves are the future of artisanal vessels. And that makes us their best protectors,” says Bartolomé Navarro, President of the Cartagena Fishers' Association and owner of the El Abuelo IV, one of the vessels involved in the project. This has also led to better acceptance and respect of fishing rules by the sector itself. Moreover, pressure on fishing has been reduced during the summer months, as there is one less fishing vessel operating, with that vessel focusing on control activities.
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