Local and regional authorities in Indonesia last week caught 33 poachers who had taken sharks, manta rays and sea cucumbers from a protected marine area that scientists have identified as one of the sea's most important sites. But after confiscating their illegal catch and gear, the patrol officers had to let them go.
The incident left conservationists and villagers frustrated, and it underscored one of the biggest challenges in protecting the ocean: Setting aside swathes of the sea from fishing works only when there's adequate enforcement.
Residents in several parts of the Bird's Head Seascape -- a series of marine protected areas in Indonesian waters -- agreed in 2005 to cut back on fishing to rebuild depleted fish stocks. The poaching took place in the Kawe Marine Protected Area, part of the seascape, which forbids fishing in 97 percent of its waters and ranks as Southeast Asia's largest no-take reserve.
The villagers "are capable of managing their local resources," said Ketut Sarjana Putra, executive director of the advocacy group Conservation International in Indonesia, but "they don't have enough capacity to do very good enforcement and patrol."
The poached sharks, manta rays and sea cucumbers are coveted by Asian consumers and were worth more than $160,000, Conservation International estimated. Sharks are used to make shark's-fin soup, a Chinese delicacy, and sea cucumbers are sought by Japanese diners. Shark fishing is banned in the territory where the poaching took place.
Conservation International provides $200,000 a year to fund patrols in this region of Indonesian Papua.
Last week's patrol team -- which included six community members, two Indonesian naval officers and a local police officer -- confiscated illegal long-line fishing gear and air compressors, which are often used to illegally take fish from the seafloor.
But the officials lacked the manpower to take over the poachers' boats: They instructed the fishermen they caught to follow them to the port of Waisai, but the poachers fled.
In the wake of the incident, the Indonesian navy sent another patrol team to a nearby post and announced plans to boost its presence throughout the protected area.
The Bird's Head Seascape boasts an array of marine life: Researchers have cataloged 1,350 fish species, 700 mollusks and 540 species of hard coral. The entire Caribbean, by contrast, has one-tenth as many coral species.
Now that fish stocks are on the rebound, Putra said, the Kawe reserve attracts fishing vessels from outside the region.
"The site is remote, and from the fishermen's perspective, this is the only fish stock in the eastern part of Indonesia that's still healthy," he said. "The only problem we see here is the outsiders."
Marine biologists who work in other remote areas of the Pacific have encountered similar problems.
Julia Baum, an assistant professor at British Columbia's University of Victoria who just published a study showing reef sharks in the Pacific have declined by more than 90 percent in recent decades, said by email that she regularly sees a large fishing vessel in U.S. waters near Kiritimati atoll in the northern Line Islands while conducting field work, and the operation hires local villagers to cut fins from sharks.
But in areas where community members have the ability to curb poaching, the results can be stunning. National Geographic explorer-in-residence Enric Sala and other researchers found that Cabo Pulmo National Park in Mexico's Baja California experienced a 460 percent increase in the number of fish in its reserve between 1999 and 2009.
People living around Cabo Pulmo, who make money taking tourists to dive in the reserve, strictly enforce the no-fishing rules -- without assistance from the national government.