Tackling illegal fishing, new marine ranger force finds its sea legs

Fishing license applications double as Nature and Parks Authority completes first six months of new program patrolling coast to make sure there are plenty more fish in the sea

Catch, fine, and release.

A new marine ranger force aimed at stopping illegal fishing in Israel has netted more than a quarter of a million shekels in fines in the first seven months of operation, the Nature and Parks Authority announced this month.

The 15 marine rangers, a new division of the Nature and Parks Authority that patrols Israel’s coasts and the Sea of Galilee, reported 305 incidents of illegal fishing with NIS 293,000 ($80,000) in fines from when it started patrolling in May 2018 until the end of the year.

The effort is part of the a wider initiative to crack down on all forms of illegal hunting and fishing in order to protect the country’s parks, including marine conservation areas along the Mediterranean and Red seas.

“It’s important to stress that we’re not against fishing, we are in favor of sustainable fishing,” said Yigael Ben Ari, the director of Marine Projects and Activities for the Nature and Parks Authority. “We want to make sure we are taking care of our resources, that we are not taking out more than we can regenerate.”

Nature and parks authority personnel prepare to set out on a patrol in Mikhmoret, central Israel, February 19, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

The fishing laws deal with issues like only taking mature fishes over a certain size, limiting fishing in sensitive areas that are designated as marine conservation areas, and prohibiting fishing certain species during their spawning season.

A small but vocal group of sport fishermen are furious over the NPA’s decision to enforce these conservation laws, which have existed for years but were widely ignored.

“In Israel, there has been a tradition for thousands of years of coastal fishing, which is an essential part of the Mediterranean identity, just as it is an integral part of the identity and traditions of all of the fishermen and people who live along the coast,” said Sami Eli, the spokesperson of the Israel Sport Fishing Association. Eli said that ports, public beaches, and pollution from the Haifa Bay already limit the area available to fishermen to tiny slivers of the coast.

Enforcement of the fishing ban in the maritime nature reserves was the “straw that broke the camel’s back,” he said, adding that the fines would lead to the collapse of sport fishing traditions and businesses in Haifa and northern Israel.

Yigael Ben Ari, the director of Marine Projects and Activities for the Nature and Parks Authority, February 19, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Last year, the Sport Fishing Association petitioned the High Court to allow fishing along the coast and especially in the Rosh Carmel maritime reserve. Rosh Carmel National Maritime Park is a 50-square-kilometer (19-square-mile) reserve outside of Haifa where the limestone mountain range of the Carmel runs into the sea, providing unique maritime habitats for a diverse array of sea life. The Sport Fishing Association claims that this is the most fertile and productive spot for fishing. The High Court ruled in May that the Nature and Parks Authority could continue to enforce fines against illegal fishermen in the area.

Six out of ten incidents of illegal fishing over the past six months were for people fishing without a license. Fishermen who fish from boats, even for personal use, must obtain a NIS 190 license from the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development. Fishermen who only fish from shore are also encouraged, though not required, to obtain licenses.

The NPA reported an increase of 107% in the number of people requesting fishing licenses for recreational use, and a nearly 50% increase in the number of people requesting commercial licenses. Commercial fishing has always required licenses, but with lax enforcement, many people did not file the necessary paperwork.

Ben Ari said one of the challenges has been helping fishermen to understand that the fishing restrictions are actually for their benefit, because they help depleted fish populations regenerate. Officials from the NPA have carried out dozens of outreach meetings with fishermen up and down the coast of Israel, in an effort to educate fishermen about new regulations and enforcement.

The NPA started warning fishermen back in 2013 that it would start enforcing fishing restrictions.

“Someone who scuba dives in Rosh Hanikra, who sees what is going on under the surface, sees something incredible,” said Ben Ari. “There is so much life down there, you’re not sure if you’re in Eilat or the Mediterranean Sea.”

The NPA’s marine unit is also trying to stop the use of underwater spear fishing rifles, which are illegal. About 5% of the illegal incidents recorded by the marine ranger involve illegal underwater firearms for hunting. Rangers are also encountering a new phenomenon of fishing using drones, which can carry baited lines high in the air and then drop them more than a hundred meters (300 feet) out to sea, farther than shore fishing could ever reach.

Marine rangers patrol the waters near Hadera in central Israel, February 19, 2019. (Luke Tress/Times of Israel)

Ben Ari said the founding of the marine rangers took a long time because of the cooperation needed between various agencies, including the Ministry of Agriculture and Rural Development, the Sports and Culture Ministry, and the police. The police have marine units but previously concentrated only on criminal activity and did not enforce fishing restrictions.

Now, cooperation between the marine police and the NPA marine rangers has grown, including sharing information in real time.

In order to issue a fishing violation, NPA rangers must prove that the fishermen were not just inside a conservation area, but actively fishing.

Israel has 13 Marine Protected Areas, each of which has unique marine environments that scientists want to conserve.

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