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Tuna Farm Project Hinges on Currents

In or out?

That’s the question no one seems to be able to answer – and until the direction of the southern Pacific Golfo Dulce’s ocean currents are determined, the Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court (Sala IV) has ordered that a proposed tuna farm near its mouth be put indefinitely on hold.The court’s decision, issued May 9, resulted from a lawsuit presented by the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) and the Punta Banco Association, requesting an injunction against the National Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA) and the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), according to the court.

The two government agencies granted permits for the project to Granjas Atuneras de Golfito, S.A., a Costa Rican company with Spanish and Venezuelan capital, in June of last year, based on an environmental impact study which has since been questioned by environmental groups, and now, the Supreme Court (TT, June 29, 2006).

The point under debate is whether waste – including excrement from hundreds of tuna concentrated into a relatively small area – will travel into the Golfo Dulce, thereby endangering the gulf’s ecosystem, or out to sea. The Southern Zone gulf, one of five tropical fjords in the world, is a vital breeding and feeding ground for critically threatened species of marine mammals and fish, including whales, sea turtles and dolphins (TT,May 4).

According to the Sala IV, the discrepancy must be resolved in order to “guarantee beforehand, with reasonable certainty, that the metabolic waste resulting from the farm will not cause environmental damage.”

Environmentalists charge that the company’s environmental impact statement does not provide adequate assurance that the fragile Golfo Dulce waters will not be harmed by waste generated from the estimated 1,200 tons of tuna that would inhabit the cages (TT, May 12, 2006).

The company’s representatives, meanwhile, have sworn under oath that currents will carry waste away from the gulf and safely out to sea.

The court has asked SETENA to demand “the necessary technical studies” to resolve the seemingly conflicting information.

Troubled Past

Since first proposed, the Golfo Dulce tuna farm has had environmentalists and proponents swimming in circles.

Now, after the court decision, both sides are proclaiming victory.

“It’s an error in three sentences,” explained Eduardo Velarde, the tuna farm company’s legal representative, in a phone interview Tuesday with The Tico Times. “It’s easy to clarify.”

According to Velarde, all the necessary information about the currents is already contained in the environmental impact study approved by SETENA last year, but a clerical mistake in summarizing that information has prompted the judges’ confusion.

Not so, according to Randall Arauz of PRETOMA, one of the groups that filed the lawsuit. Arauz maintains the studies are inadequate.

“You can’t just study currents for a week and be certain of what is happening. You have study them for a year, and you have to realize that El Niño or La Niña can change everything,” he said. “These studies have to be exhaustive.”

Despite the discrepancies, Velarde maintains that environmental groups should be applauding the farm, not fighting it.

He sees the tuna farm as an essential ingredient in saving wild tuna stocks, which all sides agree are critically threatened throughout the world. It is still not technologically feasible to “hatch” tuna in a farm, so it is necessary to harvest wild tuna and transplant them to pens, where the catch can grow, then be harvested when needed.

“We’ve got 600,000 square kilometers of ocean. We need protein. You can grow it, or you can fish it. We know that we can’t keep fishing or we will lose them all,” said Velarde, who insists that a farm will reduce impact on tuna by allowing fishermen to achieve a larger yield from the same number of fish.

According to Arauz, it’s not quite so simple. He says that besides the farm’s potential harm to the Golfo Dulce, many studies have shown that Pacific tuna populations can’t handle the increase in pressure that would result from supplying tuna farms.

“What we need is sustainable fisheries, not tuna farms,” he said.

Velarde maintains that while the technology has yet to develop, it will someday be possible to grow tuna from birth. Approval of a tuna farm like the one he’s proposed will put Costa Rica on the leading edge, he said.

“When that technology is available, then I’ll sit down and discuss it,” said Arauz.

Activists and locals near the Golfo Dulce, such as Sierra Goodman, president of the Vida Marina Foundation, are equally upset with the way the situation was handled – and not just because of its potential impact on water quality or tuna stocks.

“It was all done very quietly, and they almost got away with it. Regardless of how the studies turn out, this sets a precedent: You can’t just come here and do things without getting the appropriate environmental studies and talking to the community first,” she said.



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