CSI for CORAL Reefs in Belize
Investigative and Enforcement Forensics Field Training Workshop
How do you prosecute an underwater crime?
Coral reef ecosystems around the world are impacted by a variety of illegal activities. Vessel groundings, poaching, destructive fishing, pollution and runoff, oil spills, garbage dumping, and the introduction of alien species can all have devastating consequences for reefs. The good news is that perpetrators of these activities are liable to prosecution, penalties, and restoration or mitigation costs. The bad news, though, is that these crimes often slip through the cracks if no one is able to properly assess and document the damage.
| Workshop participants practice Rapid Ecological Assessment (REA) techniques on land before taking them underwater.
One of the major roles of REA is to determine what biological resources and ecological functions were lost due to
an impact event, and to establish the expected rate
of recovery for the habitat.
Coral reefs in Belize will now have a much better chance of winning in court, thanks to an intensive five-day training held in San Pedro this October. CSI for Coral Reefs, a workshop partially sponsored by CORAL, helped coral reef managers and conservation organizations build their capacity for responding to marine injuries. Workshop participants included representatives from the Belize government and coast guard, a number of Belize's marine protected areas, and many non-profit organizations. Valentine Rosado, CORAL's field manager in Belize, took part in the training and will now be able to use his new expertise to further his work in reef conservation.
| The Rapid Ecological Assessment Fish Team collects data used
to estimate biomass densities and to describe the relative
abundance of the fish assemblage.
Crime scene investigation (CSI) techniques have become famous through the television show CSI, and these same strategies are now being used underwater—with a few twists. For instance, instead of crime scene tape, underwater investigators use buoys to mark the perimeter of the scene. Investigators also have to contend with the unique challenges of working underwater. Not only is their time limited by the air in their tanks, but marine currents and animals constantly change the scene—sometimes by eating the evidence!
Participants in the coral CSI workshop learned the ins and outs of coral reef forensic investigations from international professionals in the fields of marine ecotoxicology, coral reef ecology, and marine natural resource investigation. Lectures provided background information and techniques that were soon put into practice in the field. During "dry runs," participants rehearsed the vital investigative procedures that will allow them to gather the evidence required to put together a compelling case, such as taking notes underwater, using Rapid Ecological Assessment techniques, marking off a crime scene, photographing the crime scene, and preserving the "chain of custody" so that defense attorneys can't argue that evidence has been tampered with.
Once the group had mastered these skills on land, they moved underwater to practice what they had learned in a realistic setting, coping with water currents, marine life, and maintaining buoyancy. On the final day, the workshop concluded with a mock court, in which participants used the "evidence" they had gathered to present a legal case.
Participants left the workshop feeling much more prepared to construct winning court cases. According to Valentine:
|Dave Gulko, Lead Instructor for the workshop, with CORAL's Belize Field Manager, Valentine Rosado|
We should now have a core response team that is a versatile multiagency unit. We will all work together whenever there are any marine injuries and these will include players from the conservation NGO's, the Department of Environment, Coast Guard, Fisheries Department and Marine Protected Area managers. Coral Reef CSI has better prepared us to handle marine injuries and make them viable in court. The course was extremely useful and the protocol that is used was something we had not seen before and it actually made it easier for us to handle varying situations. Now we can reflect on past incidents and see the things that we could have done differently to gain a win in court. We now have the capacity to build a stronger case based on the protocol learned.
|Participants in the CSI for Coral Reefs Workshop|
Photos by Armeid Thompson and Valentine Rosado