THE Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) has agreed to review an injunction filed by an environmental group alleging that three government agencies violated the Constitution by allowing improperly inspected foreign fishing vessels to unload tons of shark fins at private Costa Rican docks without accounting for the carcasses of those sharks.
The injunction was filed by the Costa Rican Sea Turtle Restoration Project (PRETOMA) against the Costa Rican Fishing and Aquaculture Institute (INCOPESCA), the Customs Office and the Division of Navigation and Port Security of the Ministry of Public Works and Transportation (MOPT).
Costa Rica’s shark-fin industry nets millions of dollars each year. The fins are normally dried and ground into a powder used to make shark-fin soup, a delicacy that in many Asian countries can sell for as much as $60 a bowl, while the powder can fetch as much as $200 per kilogram in some Asian markets (TT, July 25, 2003).
THE loads of fins are massive. Last June, for example, a Panamanian ship unloaded some 30 tons of fins here with no carcasses attached (TT, July 17, 2003).
According to a preliminary study conducted by PRETOMA, Costa Rica’s shark population dropped an estimated 95% from 1993 to 2003 as a result of shark finning, the practice of detaching the fin from the body, which has a low market value, and tossing the carcasses back to sea.
Ligia Castro, Director of INCOPESCA, declined to comment on the statistic, saying she would have to read the study first.
“We answer to the courts,” Castro said.
PRETOMA’s injunction alleges that failing to take steps strong enough to stop this unchecked slaughter puts all three agencies in violation of Article 50 of the Constitution, which guarantees all Costa Ricans the right to a “healthy and ecologically balanced environment.”
The other article the group claims the agencies violated is Article 11, which states authorities must “fulfill the responsibilities imposed by Law and cannot usurp powers which the Law has not vested in them.”
PRETOMA claims the agencies violated this article by allowing foreign vessels to unload in private docks – an act they are not empowered by law to do.
The government agencies claim they have effectively addressed the problem. For example, MOPT adopted a measure last July that requires all foreign fishing vessels to dock at the central Pacific port of Caldera, near Puntarenas, to be subjected to official inspection, after which the measure states they should “coordinate with competent authorities.”
But Randall Arauz, president of PRETOMA, said the dock at Caldera is not big enough to accommodate large ships, so the only method inspectors can employ is traveling out to the ships to inspect the cargo.
This leads to inadequate inspections, he said, because inspectors can only check those portions of a ship’s cargo that are readily accessible.
Castro of INCOPESCA agreed that the infrastructure at Caldera, as well as the Puntarenas dock, is not adequate, and said that as such the Customs Office has allowed the ships to unload at private docks. But, she said, the inspections are sufficient, as inspectors from either INCOPESCA or the Biologists’ Association always are present during unloading.
HOWEVER, the same measure in which MOPT mandates that ships get inspected at Caldera states it is “totally impossible” to bring all necessary public officials to private docks to ensure all regulations are properly enforced, and so the practice of shark finning must be stopped.
Jorge Hernandez, director of the Division of Navigation and Port Security at MOPT, told The Tico Times this week that he had no immediate response to PRETOMA’s allegations in the injunction, as he had only received notification of it on Monday morning and had not had time to conduct a corresponding study.
More recently, INCOPESCA adopted new regulations that came into effect Nov. 2, 2003, establishing limits on the shark fin-tobody ratio ships are allowed to unload in Costa Rican ports.
While the United States, the European Union and Australia have set that limit at 5%, INCOPESCA set it at 7-12.7%, depending on the species (TT, Oct. 10, 2003).
THE fin-to-body ratio limits INCOPESCA set are based on the recommendations of a study conducted by the Biologists’ Association, headed by Moises Mug, also the regional fish official for the World Wildlife Fund.
Arauz called the study “subjective and capricious,” claiming that it was done with too small of a sample to be near accurate – in some cases, he said, they only examined 19 sharks. He also said the increased percentage will encourage shark hunters to discard the carcasses of more sharks in order to comply with the ratio.
Mug said the only purpose of the study was to provide guidelines for INCOPESCA, and was not intended to replace other studies about the same subject.
“In other places in the world, they’ve done studies with 150,000 sharks, and found the fin-to-body ratio to be 5%. Here, it’s not going to be any different,” Mug said.
He also said the percentages in his study are catered to the Asian market, where most Costa Rican shark exports end up. He said in Asia, shark fins are cut with more meat attached to them, which necessitates a larger fin-to-body ratio to obtain the same amount of product.
THE Customs Office, chastised by PRETOMA for failing to properly regulate shark fin unloading by foreign vessels, responded to the injunction by stating it is responsible only for regulating international commerce, not national commerce, and that private docks are the responsibility of MOPT, according to a statement sent to The Tico Times by José Arce, Chief Legal Advisor for the office.
The statement also said the Customs Office has handled the issue of shark finning by circulating a memo stating that the agency should comply with the instructions of the technical-directorate of INCOPESCA.
President Abel Pacheco told The Tico Times in September that Costa Rica is in desperate need of a Fishing and Aquaculture Bill that would criminalize the practice of landing shark fins not attached to the body. The measure has been stalled in Congress for the past seven years (TT, Oct. 10, 2003).