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Costa Rica takes big step in marine conservation

President Laura Chinchilla took a beautiful big blue step into the arena of ocean conservation earlier this month when she created the biggest marine conservation area in Costa Rica, protecting 964,000 hectares of marine territory around Isla del Coco, Costa Rica’s legendary “Treasure Island” and national park some 600 kilometers west of the Pacific port of Puntarenas.

For the first time in history, Costa Rica is showing interest in protecting all its ecosystems. Pelagic, abyssal, benthic and seamount ecosystems are the broad categories of life protected in the new and aptly named Seamounts Marine Management Area. These masterpiece creations of evolution can now join the famous Costa Rican club of the protected. Peace is being made with the oceans – no ecosystems left behind.

The protected area will be for artisan, sport and regulated commercial fishing that does not damage the environment, Fernando Quirós, director of the Isla del Coco Conservation Area, told the daily La Nación. He said that Costa Rican fishers themselves indicated the area they could fish if multinational tuna purse seiners were not damaging the ecosystems. Tuna dozers are well-known marine-life-massacre machines in Costa Rica, and kill a huge diversity of animals in addition to the targeted tuna.

Costa Rica appears to intend to make Tico small-scale fishers stakeholders in the area by granting fishing permits, hopefully to sustainable fishing practices. Community stakeholders, not just wealthy elite, participating in managing a protected resource for their own long-term gain, while perhaps controversial to some, is likely the only way such a marine protected area could work in the long run.

Around the world, the community stakeholder system has proven to be the most effective method of protecting marine resources, especially if the plan is not to receive endless donations of free money to keep things rolling.

Think Ostional, on the northern Pacific coast, where the community harvests olive ridley sea turtles sustainably. After decades of harvest, the olive ridley is the only marine turtle in the world that is not listed as endangered. With a lot of work, this visionary management area could teach Costa Ricans to catch fish sustainably, and not expect fish dozer-fueled handouts.

Dolphins, not just Costa Rican fishers, will benefit from getting rid of the tuna dozers, because the ships target dolphins with their nets to corral the tuna that normally swim right beneath them, killing and massively stressing thousands of dolphins in the process.

But the news is not so great for sharks and billfish, as longliners will still be allowed to fish tuna in these waters. Every longline I have ever seen over many years at sea hooks far more sharks and billfish than tuna. Allowing longlining in a protected area is a corrupt step backward, as our neighbor to the south, Panama, has recognized by banning the practice in its waters (TT, March 4).

Ironically, most Costa Ricans and tourists will never see or fish the Seamounts Marine Management Area. Much of it is even more remote than the famously and fabulously isolated Cocos Island. Only the wealthiest of Costa Rican fishers will be able to access the area. For this same reason, enforcement of the rules in the protected area will be rather difficult.

An obvious solution would be to also create a decent-sized marine protected area for mainland Costa Ricans and tourists to enjoy, and fish some ocean without tuna dozers razing the resource.

The waters offshore of the Osa Peninsula’s Corcovado National Park and Caño Island Biological Reserve, which are already visited by many Costa Rican fishers and tourists on day trips, contain a greater concentration and diversity of dolphins and whales than any other place in the country. Yet the tuna dozers do not hesitate to tell tourists and fishers to leave the area so they can attack the dolphins. The only reasons I can see to not protect this area are corruption, myopia and greed.

And what about the Nicoya Peninsula and Guanacaste in the north? I’m guessing the good people of these areas would like to fish and enjoy their oceans without the ecological damage of unsustainable fishing practices. And let’s not forget the Caribbean side, either.

Three cheers for Laura Chinchilla for taking her first blue step.

Let’s hope she learns to dance.

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