PUNTARENAS – More than 250 fishermen, management authorities and scientists from 39 countries met this week in this central Pacific port city to avert what experts call a “state of crisis” in the world’s oceans.
The Fourth Annual World Fishers’ Forum, held at the Hotel Fiesta, overlooking the Gulf of Nicoya, Costa Rica’s most important fishing region, began Monday with discussions on ways to reduce bycatch of sea turtles, marine birds and other animals in Pacific longline fisheries.
The resulting Puntarenas Declaration, to be presented to the United Nations, cites 12 actions to ensure sustainable fisheries, including new ecosystem-based management policies, the reduction of bycatch and illegal fishing, and improved law enforcement.
Participants also agreed to form a regional Central American Sustainable Fisheries Organization that will allow authorities to better coordinate responsible management of migratory species that often pass through marine territories of different countries.
“We must find a way to keep our fisheries alive – and use science to determine the solutions, not exclusive economic zones,” said Rodolfo Salazar, president of Costa Rica’s National Fishermen’s Federation, who committed to finalizing the group’s formative legal documents in 15 days.
The World Wildlife Fund (WWF) International and the Central American Aquaculture and Fishing Sector Organization (OSPESCA) will also lend support to the new organization.
In a keynote address Monday, Jim Leape, director general of the WWF, which helped sponsor the event, warned that many of the world’s fisheries, including those closest to Costa Rica, were “headed in the wrong direction.”
“If we don’t move quickly and decisively, we could see our fisheries collapse,” he said.“At current rates, we will exhaust our commercial fisheries by the middle of this century.”
Leape said reducing bycatch of sea turtles and other marine species in longline fisheries is an essential first step in solving the problem.
“We must launch a global initiative to change the way fishing is done. We can no longer fish in ways that are needlessly destructive, or that are not sustainable,” he said.
The WWF has worked on a project to introduce circle hooks, which they say decrease bycatch of nontarget species such as turtles and seabirds, to longline fishermen in Costa Rica and throughout the Pacific Rim.
Because these fisheries often involve long strings of thousands of hooks, and millions throughout the Pacific, the net effect will be enormous, Leape said.
Compared to traditional j-shaped hooks, circle hooks are wider, and the point faces inward. Instead of swallowing the hooks, fish are hooked almost harmlessly in the lip, allowing for easy release of nontarget species.
“Addressing bycatch is a significant part of reducing fisheries’ impact on ecosystems,” he said.
Carlos Villalobos, executive director of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), also proposed a broader Latin American commission, comprised of countries from Peru to Honduras, that would seek to promote sustainable fisheries.
“Considering the importance of the migratory fish species as a source of food, employment and economic benefits for our countries’ populations, we must reach agreements that benefit everyone,” he said.
The proposed commission would conduct ocean-wide studies of fish species, analyze migration patterns and ensure that species common to some or all countries were not being overfished.
Villalobos also hinted at the creation of a biological corridor, allowing fish and marine mammals to spawn, migrate and feed unmolested in the Pacific Ocean.
Kitty Simonds, executive director of the Western Pacific Regional Fishery Management Council, one of the sponsors of the event, called the forum a success.
“It has been exciting working with positive minded people… who can envision a future where we can have fish forever,” she said.
One of the resolutions in the Puntarenas Declaration called for the creation of a Code of Conduct for responsible longline fisheries.
Simonds called the code “an important step forward” and a critical outcome of the forum.
The conference, the fourth in seven years, was the first to be held in Latin America. Villalobos, of INCOPESCA, said the decision to base the meeting in Costa Rica was no accident.
“We’re in a historic position to reduce our impact on the oceans and guarantee the sustainable future of our resources. Costa Rica is proud to be a part of this movement,” he said.