A court in Puntarenas, on the Pacific coast, has ordered the return of 230 tons of tuna seized from a fishing boat caught with its nets in the protected waters surrounding Isla del Coco.
The government had previously tried to sell the tuna – which is being held in the ship’s refrigerated storage – at a public sale, but had no offers.
The court ordered the fish returned to the boat’s captain because the prosecutor could not prove the fish were caught in the protected waters, court spokeswoman Andrea Marín told The Tico Times.
The prosecutor’s case only charges the captain, Ariel Bustamante – who Marín confirmed is not Costa Rican, but she could not say where he is from – with taking 7.8 tons of yellowfin tuna from protected waters.
Marín said the first hearings of the trial have yet to be set. The daily La Nación reported that the prosecutor’s office has dropped charges against Bustamante’s 23 crewmembers, who were released less than a month after their arrest.
Bustamante is also facing another trial before the Environmental Tribunal, an administrative court of the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE). Proceedings in that trial began this week. Bustamente is charged with environmental damage valued at $12 million, a figure based on all 230 tons of tuna.
An operation by the Coast Guard, MINAE and the environmental organization MarViva captured the boat, a Panamanian-flagged-tuna fisher called Tiuna, in Isla del Coco’s waters Jan. 29.
The island, 587 kilometers off Costa Rica’s west coast, is a national park whose boundaries extend far out to sea. In 1997, it was declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations.
A shortage of park guards, however, and a lack of funds to repair the government’s scant patrol boats have left the waters largely unprotected.
The handling of the Tiuna case has drawn criticism and exposed weaknesses in the legal protections for the park.
When the crew was released, Chief Prosecutor Francisco Dall’Anese said the courts risked letting the crime go unpunished.
“This tells the international tuna fleets that they can go into the (national park) and take all the tuna.With the companies knowing that, Isla del Coco is lost,” he said.
MarViva, which conducts most of the patrols and whose boat was the first to arrive at the Tiuna, raised the possibility of stopping its support and questioned the government’s commitment to environmental protection.
The organization’s regional director, Jorge Jiménez, estimated MarViva spent $40,000 on the patrol that caught the Tiuna. The fine Bustamante is facing for fishing in national park waters is a maximum of about $28,000.
In April, MarViva and the Prosecutor’s Office suggested Costa Rica’s Fishing Law be reformed to increase penalties for illegal fishers.