Illegal Fishing Spike in MPA During COVID-19 Calls for Broader Adaptive Management
Global socio-ecological shocks, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, can threaten progress in protecting vulnerable marine environments by altering behaviour of resource users. When government priorities shift from environmental protection towards safeguarding human populations, control of illegal activity in protected areas can alter. Resulting increases in illegal fishing in large-scale marine protected areas (MPAs) are of particular concern as they contain a large proportion of marine protected area globally. Here, we report on average 19 times as many suspected illegal fishing vessels per month in 2022 (n = 19) compared with 2010 to 2020 (n = 1) in an Indian Ocean MPA. Although illegal fishing has been a pervasive problem, the current spike in Indian vessels targeting a broad trophic diversity of reef-associated species is of particular concern and we suggest such changes in illegal activity in MPAs globally may persist over long timescales unless management is broad and adaptive to individual context. When considering potential solutions, widespread adoption of technology, such as remote surveillance of vessels, can mitigate illegal activities but remains unfeasible for many MPAs globally due to financial and political barriers. Instead, we suggest broader approaches, including a renewed focus on regional approaches to combating illegal fishing, formal bilateral agreements between competent authorities in relevant countries and an increase in community-based work.