A deep dive into marine training as a means of streamlining conservation efforts
Practical training session using the Marine SMART tool underwater
Practical training session using the Marine SMART tool underwater
On the Southwest Andaman Sea coast of Thailand lies Had Chao Mai-Ko Libong ASEAN Heritage Park, a part of Trang Province famous for its rich marine biodiversity, including dolphins, sea turtles and the largest remaining population of the rather distinctive dugongs – a relative of the manatee, and marked as vulnerable on the IUCN Red List. The park's landscape and ecosystems are varied, consisting of evergreen, karst, and beach forests, limestone cave ecosystems, mangroves, coral reefs, and some of the most important seagrass meadows in the world, which have a high capacity for storing CO2.
regional and national face-to-face events have been organised so far
online events were held during the COVID pandemic
With support from the EU's Biodiversity Conservation and Management of Protected Areas (BCAMP) project, Marine SMART training sessions were held in Trang Province in early spring, close to the Had Chao Mai-Koh Libong ASEAN Heritage Park. The training aimed to develop skills and capacities in a wide variety of conservation capabilities. It was organised by Dr Thamasak Yeemin and his team from Ramkhamhaeng University Marine Biology Research Group, in collaboration with the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB), The Department of National Parks, Wildlife and Plant Conservation (DNP), the Department of Marine and Coastal Resources (DMCR) and the Marine Science Association of Thailand. Although the training took place in Trang Province, personnel participated from many of Thailand's marine national parks, where the knowledge learned will be rolled out.
Getting SMART about marine conservation
The Spatial Monitoring and Reporting Tool (SMART) was developed to assist conservation managers worldwide with essential practices like monitoring animals, identifying threats, and streamlining data collection and reporting. The SMART approach has been used extensively across Thailand's terrestrial protected areas to significant effect but has been less widely used in marine areas. Team Leader, Robert Mather, explains how the SMART tool reinforces conservation efforts:
"The SMART tool systematically stores the information recorded from all patrols in a database that can be queried to generate maps and infographics. The visual presentation of the results of large numbers of patrols shows, in an easy-to-understand way, which issues and threats are encountered most often, where in the park each type of threat is more common or less common, and how different threats change at different times of the year. This understanding provides the basis for adaptive management – the ability to concentrate enforcement efforts in the right place at the right time to prevent illegal activities from happening."
BCAMP also supported the development of a Marine SMART Training Manual and used the training sessions to launch the implementation of its use in the Trang Province and marine national parks across Thailand. Here, the tool is used to patrol the water surface and for underwater scuba diving patrols. "SMART is used in surface patrols by speed boat over large areas to record any signs or evidence of harmful activities visible from the surface, such as the presence of illegal fishing boats, dive boats in areas where the diving sites are temporarily closed, etc.," explains Mather. "Underwater patrols cover smaller areas and focus on the presence of illegal fishing gear, ghost fishing nets, coral damage from boat anchors and marine litter."
Participants were taught how to use nautical charts and GPS before moving on to a practical session of SMART patrolling underwater, using a newly developed software data collection form. Two teams totalling 18 divers participated, while the remaining participants practised using the surface patrol data collection form.
The ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity (ACB) was set up in 2005 to facilitate joint conservation efforts across the 10 ASEAN countries and help them reach a leverage point in which biodiversity resources are secured. To support the ACB in reaching this point, the European Union launched the Biodiversity Conservation and Management of Protected Areas in ASEAN project (BCAMP), running from 2017 to 2022. NIRAS is contracted to handle the technical assistance from November 2017 to October 2022.
You can read the BCAMP project brief here.
Park rangers: the first line of defence in marine wildlife protection
Training continued on land, where expert marine veterinarians instructed participants on how to handle injured or stranded endangered marine mammals and turtles they may encounter on their patrols.
"If stranded animals are considered in good health and not injured, the priority is to get them back to sea as quickly as possible," explains Mather. "For animals with significant injuries or obviously in very poor health, for example, a dolphin so thin you can see its ribs, the park staff can administer first aid and make the animal as comfortable as possible, following the procedures they learned in the training, and call in the veterinarian team. The animal may then be transported to the veterinary facility for treatment and released back into the ocean when recovered."
In addition to spotting harmed animals, park rangers may come across poachers in the field, who sadly continue to pose threats to the region's vulnerable animals. Participants were instructed in making arrests in their authority and power under the relevant laws, including the National Park Law, Wildlife Conservation Law, and Forestry Law. Unfortunately, arrests do not always lead to successful prosecutions, even when suspects have been caught red-handed in a protected area. Ensuring that this does not happen, protected area rangers must follow correct procedures and prepare written arrest reports that are accurate, clear, and include all the required information to facilitate the next steps of the prosecution. During training, the rangers practised writing arrest reports for three hypothetical scenarios, followed by a discussion and constructive criticism to help improve their report writing skills.
And luckily, attempts at poaching do get prevented, as was the case in this story told to Robert Mather about how useful it is to have a diver with the SMART patrol team. "In Tarutao National Park, a patrol team encountered a yacht inside the protected area. When they approached it, they noticed a large fish lying on the deck. They suspected that the fish had been illegally caught with a spear gun inside the park. When they questioned the boat owner ‒ an English-speaking foreigner ‒ he initially claimed he had bought the fish from some fishermen and had no spear gun. However, the diver searched under the boat and found a spear gun that had just been thrown overboard when they approached. When presented with the evidence, the boat owner finally admitted to the crime. He was escorted to the national park office, the spear-gun was confiscated, and he was fined."
The multilevel and transboundary approach of BCAMP means that efforts to protect biodiversity are ongoing or under preparation across the ASEAN region. As the participants return to the field to implement the new skills and knowledge required, BCAMP activities are underway elsewhere. The project's next steps in Thailand comprise building coral reef resilience in marine protected areas and developing a strategy to mainstream biodiversity protection in agriculture. In other parts of the region, work is being done to boost biodiversity protection, including developing an ecotourism plan in Laos, supporting primary teachers' integration of biodiversity into primary and secondary school curricula in Malaysia, and implementing carbon financing and protected area zoning in Cambodia.
As the saying goes, many small streams make a big river, and the concerted efforts of the BCAMP project team will continue to do everything in its might to protect one of the most biodiverse regions in the world.
You can gain further insight into the ACB and BCAMP activities here.
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