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Agency Gutted After Port Protest

The director of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) has resigned following a protest by fishing boats that blocked a luxury cruise ship from entering port.

The fisherman were protesting, among other complaints, government regulations meant to curb a practice known as shark finning, where a shark’s fin is severed and the shark, often still alive, is thrown overboard.

Carlos Villalobos, former executive of INCOPESCA, told The Tico Times he was asked to step down by officials in Oscar Arias’ administration in order to make way for a restructuring of the institute that would make it more sympathetic to the fishing industry.

“I spoke with the minister of Agriculture and the vice minister about what would be best, but seeing that the space for negotiation had closed, I presented my resignation,” Villalobos said.

The minister also requested the resignation of INCOPESCA’s board of directors, Villalobos said, adding that “as far as I know, only two members have presented their resignations.

The representatives of the fishing industry do not want to resign.”

The Tico Times attempted to contact the ministers, but by press time had not received a response.

The changes to INCOPESCA, which has continually fought against stricter shark finning regulations, followed a Nov. 12 protest in which fishing boats blocked a Coral Princess cruise ship from docking at the Pacific port city of Puntarenas.

The Coral Princess, more than 900 feet long and with accommodations for 2,000 passengers, turned around and went to Panama, much to the dismay of vendors, restaurant owners and others in the town of Puntarenas who depend on cruise tourism.

A second cruise liner, the Norwegian Sun, was later escorted to pier by Costa Rican police patrol boats as government officials negotiated with the protestors.

“This has been very unfortunate. I believe that nobody has the right to play with someone else’s daily bread to satisfy their own needs,” said Tourism Minister Ricardo Benavides, who was part of the negotiations.

Adding that he believes the fishermen have legitimate complaints, Benavides said he was “not justifying by any means what happened; however, we must work more with the communities where these docks are found. It is necessary that the communities, which see these cruise ships dock right in front of them, benefit from them directly and not just marginally.”

The fishermen were protesting an order from the Government Attorney’s Office that prohibits them from partially cutting a shark’s fin after catching it. The fishermen insist the cut is necessary to properly bleed the shark, and so that they may fold the fin over, allowing for more sharks to be stuffed into on-board freezers.

It is the latest in a long battle between fishing fleets and the government over a 2005 fishing law that required sharks to be landed with their fins attached. INCOPESCA interpreted “attached” to include fins that were severed but tied to a shark body with rope or string.

Following years of battle, two court rulings, a ruling from the Comptroller General’s Office, four rulings from the Government Attorney’s Office and a recommendation from the Legislative Assembly, INCOPESCA finally voted in late August to ban the practice and ordered sharks to be landed with their fins fully intact (TT, Sept. 12).

After the vote, Villalobos said the board had made the decision “under protest.”

INCOPESCA’s board is made up of one representative from the tuna canning and processing industry, three from the government and six representing the fishing industry.

Environmentalists have long complained the board heavily favors fishing interests over conservation.

Villalobos this week said board then voted in October to allow a partial cut in the muscular tissue around the fin, noting that it is a practice allowed by the international conservation organization IUCN, Costa Rica’s Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA) and other environmental organizations.

Randall Arauz, of PRETOMA, said that his organization consulted with IUCN and was told that a partial cut was within international conventions on shark finning.

“But IUCN and PRETOMA do not set fishing policy for Costa Rica,” he said, noting the Government Attorney’s Office issued a resolution banning the partial cut just two weeks ago, apparently the detonator for the protests.

For Arauz, the fishing protests were the result of the free reign that INCOPESCA has given the industry “blowing up in their face.”



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