Five years ago I started an initiative called The Black Fish to raise awareness on the state of our seas. The organisation gained such momentum that it grew rapidly into an international movement to tackle the illegal overfishing of the world’s oceans. Then a few months ago one simple idea changed everything.

For a couple of years now we have been training civilian fishing inspectors to investigate fishing crimes. Yet however active we were at monitoring fishing ports, the illegal activities took place far out at sea. Lacking larger donors and the funds to buy a ship, there was no way we could keep an eye on what happens offshore. 

All across the world we see people in desperate attempts to expose and challenge illegal logging, pirate fishing and poaching activities. Driven by greed and enabled by corruption, organised crime has set its sight on endangered wildlife, with irrevocable damage to species and biodiversity as a result. Wildlife crime, the majority of which is illegal fishing, is now the fastest growing type of organised crime and there’s no sign of it stopping.

The world’s park rangers, coastguard officers and fishing inspectors are vastly outnumbered and often responsible for monitoring huge areas of ocean and land, with few resources. There is little funding available and innovative technologies such as drones still offer limited range. The situation is urgent and it was one late winter evening in a cosy South London pub that I stumbled upon a revelation that is set to turn the tables for conservation.

Meet my friends James and Arthur. Both professional pilots, both interested in my work, though not necessarily passionate about the issues. After the first drink the conversation inevitably lead to flying. “So you spend all that time to get your pilot’s license and when you knock on the door, the airline just says you lack the experience” scowls Arthur, who has spent close to £40,000 on his commercial pilot’s license, only to be told to go and ‘build up’ his flying hours. He goes on to talk about Spain where he just flew. “Cheap rentals and amazing scenery”.

I stare out the window and with my mind wandering off, envisioning how deploying aircraft would be a game changer to our struggle to track illegal fishing in the Mediterranean. But who’s going to pay for it? Then suddenly it came to me. These soon-to- be pilots are already flying in the areas where we work. What if we could add real purpose to their additional air time? What if, by re-purposing these flights, we can realise much needed aerial surveillance for conservation? The flights are partly paid for and we have Citizen Inspectors that know exactly what to look for. It’s win-win for everyone!

A few weeks later I’m asking the same questions to an applicant in a job interview for a totally unrelated position. It’s Dan on the other side of the table, a passionate wildlife photographer and civil instructor with the Air Training Corps, which trains air cadets, many of which go on to fly for the Royal Air Force. We hit the ground running. After a few weeks of talking to aviators at flying clubs, trade shows and air museums, it simply took off. We had started the Wildlife Air Service, the first global air service for conservation.

With eyes in the sky we now have the ability to assist struggling enforcement agencies in a cost-effective way to direct their limited resources more strategically, already with confiscations and prosecutions as a result.

Pilots are signing up in droves, all keen to put their flying passion to good use. Aircraft are being given on loan and initial contact with airlines will hopefully result in much needed fuel donations. We are succeeding in mobilising a hugely resourceful sector to strengthen crucial conservation efforts.

The Wildlife Air Service is about engaging people by talking about what is close to their hearts and asking them to apply their passion to support the fight for the sustainability of the planet. In fact, forget the troubled oceans, threatened forests and endangered wildlife for a moment. Conservation is all about people. 

So, whether you love flying, being on the seaside or just keen to make a difference, we would love to hear from you at the Wildlife Air Service or The Black Fish

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Wietse van der Werf is a social entrepreneur with a passion for the oceans and an eye for applying unusual tactics to take on ambitious conservation challenges. The Black Fish, which he founded in 2010, trains ordinary people as civilian fishing inspectors. It now runs the world’s largest independent fisheries monitoring network. The Wildlife Air Service, the first global air service for conservation, is another of Wietse’s ventures, taking the fight for the planet to the skies.

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