PUERTO JIMENEZ – The rods are being set to forever pull fishing nets out of the Golfo Dulce in Costa Rica’s Southern Zone.
Officials from local and national fishing organizations and national conservation groups met in the town hall here on Saturday to discuss a plan that would declare the gulf, one of the world’s five tropical fjords, a Marine Area of Responsible Fishing (AMPR). The two-and-one-half-year plan would involve eliminating shrimp trawlers from the area, conducting biological studies and teaching gillnet fishermen how to use sustainable fishing practices.
Officials of the Costa Rican Federation for Fishing Tourism (FECOPT) presented the plan to directors of the National Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) and members of the National Artisan Fishing Federation (FENOPA) at the meeting. Members from all parties were on board with banning fishing nets on the gulf.
“It’s the only way to restore this gulf,” said Donald McGuinness, president of FECOPT. “It’s already overfished.”
The nets have long been the center of attacks from national conservation groups which worry about the bycatch that trawls and gillnets capture. The nets often trap and kill dolphins, turtles and sharks.
Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle and Restoration Program (PRETOMA), said that if the fishing institutes are serious about declaring the Golfo Dulce a responsible fishing area, the first thing they must do is remove the shrimp trawlers, which are notorious for pulling unnecessary bycatch out of the gulf. The United States has embargoed Costa Rica’s shrimp industry four times since 1999 because of a lack of use and enforcement of sustainable fishing practices.
“We’ve been telling them for years to get shrimp boats out of here,” Arauz said. INCOPESCA president Jorge Barrantes said the shrimp boats are among the first of their concerns.
“We are working with the shrimpers now,” he said. “We hope to have them out within a month.”
Officials from INCOPESCA will meet with shrimp fishing organizations in the central Pacific city of Puntarenas today – Friday June, 5 – to discuss the plan.
The AMPR would cover all areas of the gulf where fishing is legal and extend to its southern most points of Punta Matapalito and Punta Banco.
Although very few studies exist that indicate the specific numbers of the various species of sea life living in the Golfo Dulce, fishing and environmental organizations agree that quantities have fallen in the past two decades. Both blame reckless net fishing as an important reason for the drop in numbers.
In the past, some environment groups have tried unsuccessfully to declare the gulf a protected conservation area, which could eliminate fishing of all types within its boundaries.
While some people believe that absolute protection for the gulf is the only way to restore the animals that once thrived in its waters, fisherman who depend on the area’s catch think that such a plan would be unfair.
“Eliminating fishing in the gulf would put too many people out of work,” said Miguel Durán, a biologist with FECOPT.
“The solution isn’t eliminating fishing; the solution is eliminating irresponsible fishing. You can fish, but fish intelligently.”
Six commercial fishing associations in the gulf provide jobs for more than 200 fishermen. Without the ability to fish in the gulf, these fishermen would be forced to steer their boats north of Punta Banco. Many fishermen fear that this, coupled with the high cost of fuel, would excessively diminish their profit.
What’s next for the plan?
In order for INCOPESCA to make the declaration, it first needs signatures from all the fisherman of the region’s six commercial fishing associations stating that they support the plan and agree with removing fishing nets. Víctor Racha, president of the National Artesan Fishing Federation, which oversees the six associations, said all of the fishermen advocate the idea and he hopes to have the paperwork to INCOPESCA during the week of June 7.
The artisan fisherman will be allowed to use their nets until December. In the meantime, they will receive training in sustainable fishing methods – bottom-baited long line, hand lines and cages – with help from non-governmental organizations. The Mixed Institute for Social Aid (IMAS) and the Labor Ministry will provide financial aid to the fishermen for the time they spend away from fishing grounds to attend training sessions.
The National University (UNA) also will step in to study fish populations and spawning times in the gulf. The results will be used to determine which species fishermen will be allowed to catch and during what time of year they will be allowed to catch them.
In the end, the idea is to have a well-managed and recuperated Golfo Dulce.
“I saw how this gulf was 20 years ago. It was beautiful fishing, but we’ve messed it up,” McGuinness said. “I want my kids to see the gulf like I saw it, and, for that, we need this area of responsible fishing.”