An award-winning documentary on sharks, released in 140 theaters throughout the United States last week, has government officials here scrambling to save Costa Rica’s “green” image.
In the movie, called “Sharkwater,” director and narrator Rob Stewart, a biologist and videographer by training, highlights Costa Rica in a long list of countries that, because of lack of regulation or enforcement, are complicit in shark finning, the highly lucrative practice of cutting off sharks’ fins and then throwing their bodies back to sea.
Scenes from the movie depict the fins of thousands of sharks drying on the roofs of buildings in the Pacific port city of Puntarenas; illegal fishing inside park waters around Isla del Coco, a Costa Rican national park located 365 miles west of Puntarenas; and a dramatic gunboat chase in which Stewart narrowly escapes a showdown with the country’s machine guntoting Coast Guard.
Environmentalists see the exposure as a national embarrassment and a critical catalyst for change in the country’s fishing policies, which they believe to be ineffective.
Government officials, meanwhile, criticize the documentary for unfairly singling out a country they say boasts the region’s most progressive, and most prohibitive, shark-fishing regulations.
The film’s release comes just days before delegations of fisheries experts from 38 nations around the world prepare to descend on Puntarenas next week for the Fourth Inter-national Fishers Forum, an international conference that will focus on sustainable fisheries (TT, Oct. 19).
“This is not the kind of image the country wants to project to the world, but it may be what it takes to force a change,” said Randall Arauz, director of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), which has long fought against the practice of shark finning, nationally and internationally. But the government ministries and institutions charged with regulating the countries fisheries are crying foul.
In a statement released by the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) this week, Dobles contested the movie’s depiction of the country and its policies, insisting that the footage and information is outdated.
“Those acts took place in 2002,” reads the statement. “Shark fishing in Costa Rica is much different today than it was some years back.”
The shark “issue” has plagued Costa Rica for years.
In 2005, then-President Abel Pacheco was named “Shark Enemy of the Year” by a European environmental organization for allowing finning to occur inside Costa Rica’s marine territory (TT, July 8, 2005).
Later that year, legislators approved the country’s first Fishing Law, taking the pressure off, but not for long.
The new law required sharks be delivered to port with fins attached, and mandated that sharks be landed at public docks, or private docks that provide a permanent presence of public inspection officials (TT, April 29, 2005).
This second point continues to haunt the country, as there are still no public docks capable of accepting the small boats used by shark fishermen.
According to Arauz, of PRETOMA, who has sued state officials for noncompliance with the fisheries law, anything short of obeying the country’s law is unacceptable and only masks the country’s shark-finning problem.
“There is a simple solution to this situation. Either provide public docks for landing sharks, or shut the fishery down,”Arauz said.
In a meeting with The Tico Times this week, Carlos Villalobos, the executive director of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), said there is no money in the budget to modernize the country’s dock systems.
Instead, he said, the country has hired 11 new inspectors for the coming year, and plans to pass a strict set of regulations to govern shark landings at private docks. Still, he said the movie has blown the issue “out of proportion.”
“Costa Rica doesn’t even have a targeted shark fishery – our fishery is incidental, it happens because we are out there fishing for marlin, tuna and dorado. We harvest about 5,000 tons of shark a year, compared to 58,000 tons in Mexico,” he said.
INCOPESCA’s statistician was on vacation this week – so Villalobos was unable to provide specifics on shark landings, but he said he is certain that shark landings had declined significantly since the filming of the movie, due to increased vigilance and stricter laws.
“So why the focus on us?” he asks.
In a brief phone interview with The Tico Times between press appearances in the United States, filmmaker Rob Stewart explained: “We set out to make a movie about sharks, and it took us to Costa Rica.
We don’t accuse the country of killing more sharks than anyone else, but the fact remains we saw finning happening at Isla del Coco,” he said.
Stewart will be in Costa Rica later this month to promote the film, which opens in select theaters throughout the country Nov. 23.
When confronted by Costa Rican officials about the possibility of adding a scene, or text to the movie, explaining the new fisheries law and the progress government officials say has been made since the movie was filmed, Stewart balks.
“Costa Rica has a lot of laws on paper, but they don’t seem to enforce them. Unless that changes, the movie won’t,” he said. “Sharkwater”:
A New Look at Sharks
In Sharkwater, narrator/director Rob Stewart explores the depths of the multibillion-dollar trade in shark fins, and the devastating effect it has had on shark populations worldwide.
Stewart teams up with Paul Watson, of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, and sails south from the United States to Guatemala waters, and later, Costa Rica’s Isla del Coco National Park, where they confront fishermen partaking in illegal shark finning.
The plot thickens when the duo face attempted murder charges in Costa Rica for ramming a fishing boat at sea, then flee the country with a Costa Rican Coast Guard gunboat in hot pursuit.
The movie is filmed in 15 countries, with footage from Costa Rica above and below the water from Puntarenas to San José and Isla del Coco.
Sharkwater opens in Costa Rica Nov. 23 at the following theaters: Cinépolis in Tres Rios, the Cinemarks in Escazú and Zapote, and CCM Theaters in San Pedro, Heredia, Pérez Zeledón, Grecia, Rohrmoser, San Ramón and Liberia.