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High Court Rules on Shark Finning Case

Environmentalists have won 80% of the battle to protect the sharks in Costa Rican waters with two recent government resolutions, Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) told The Tico Times this week.

Still, they won’t be satisfied until the battle is completely won, he added.

The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) on Feb. 3 ruled in favor of sharks in a lawsuit filed by PRETOMA last year against the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), the General Customs Administration and the Ministry of Public Works and Transport (MOPT).

In the suit, filed Feb. 19, 2004, PRETOMA complained that the state was allowing fishing vessels to unload shark fins on private docks without inspectors present.

The Sala IV agreed with environmentalists that the government agencies have failed to fulfill their duties to protect the marine ecosystem. Environmentalists say that shark finning, the removal of sharks’ cartilagefilled fins from their lower-valued bodies which are then discarded, is severely depleting Costa Rica’s shark populations.

The high court ordered Customs and INCOPESCA to immediately prohibit all vessels possibly dedicated to shark fishing from unloading on private docks unless government representatives are present, including an official from the Ministry of Environment and Energy (MINAE), Arauz told The Tico Times.

The ruling resembles one issued in 2004, when the high court held Customs responsible for violating the Constitution by allowing fins to be unloaded at private docks without inspectors present (TT, June 18, 2004).

INCOPESCA general technical director Marvin Mora this week said unloading at private docks continues in the Pacific province of Puntarenas, where two public docks – Caldera, just south of the port town of Puntarenas, and Cruceros, the cruise-ship dock in Puntarenas – lack the infrastructure to unload seafood items.

However, he said the institute has participated in 2,345 inspections at public and private docks in the past four years, of which approximately 650 were foreign vessels.

Mora said that INCOPESCA, of all the institutions involved (in the PRETOMA lawsuit) has performed its inspection duties and will continue to do so.

Customs General Manager José Alberto Martínez told The Tico Times that Customs will comply with the court ruling in the interest of improving its performance.

The Government Attorney’s Office issued a statement Jan 25. against INCOPESCA’s interpretation of the country’s Fishing Law – for the second time in the past eight months.

The Fishing Law, passed in February 2004, punishes shark finning with prison and fines (TT, Feb. 18, 2004) and stipulates that shark fishing is allowed only when sharks are “unloaded at docks with their respective fins attached to the body.”

Environmentalists and some INCOPESCA officials admit the institute interpreted this to mean the fins can be attached artificially to the bodies, using nylon string and ropes, though other officials deny this.

Although the Government Attorney’s Office said the fins must be adhered naturally in a resolution last year (TT, Dec. 23, 2005), INCOPESCA press officer Hugo Solano admitted they continued allowing them to be attached artificially after they found support from a group of legislators (TT, Jan. 20).

Patriotic Bloc legislator Rafael Varela, with the support of approximately 20 legislators and the INCOPESCA board of directors, asked the Government Attorney’s Office to reconsider its pronouncement last year.

Last month, the Attorney’s Office rejected their request, establishing that fins must be attached naturally to be legal. However, Jorge López, INCOPESCA chief of the protection and registry department located next to the INCOPESCA dock in Puntarenas, told The Tico Times that after the Fishing Law took effect in April 2005 and until now, the institute has allowed only sharks with naturally adhered fins to be unloaded.

“In this story, only one side (the environmentalists’) has been heard,” he said.

Arauz, meanwhile, said environmentalists will be satisfied only after fishing vessels are prohibited from unloading sharks on private docks.



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