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Bill aims to make sailfish national fish of Costa Rica

The event room at the Corobicí hotel was nearly full. This was a joyous occasion. People were ready to celebrate. After intense lobbying, the group now anxiously awaited the arrival of President José María Figueres, who was to sign a decree ordering full protection of sailfish, making the fish an exclusively catch-and-release species for the booming sportfishing industry. An hour passed. Then, another. Finally, everyone disappointedly realized Figueres was not going to show up to sign the decree.

That was 22 years ago.

A lot has happened in the past two decades. For one, more than 80 percent of eastern tropical sailfish, leatherback turtles and sharks have disappeared from our oceans as a direct result of nonselective fishing methods. The sportfishing industry in Costa Rica has grown; a 2009 study by the University of Costa Rica showed it generates $599 million annually. Twenty-two percent of high-season tourists come here for sportfishing, creating 63,000 jobs and $78 million in tax revenue for the country. Three large marinas have been built, and three more are in planning stages. If you look at the occupancy in existing marinas, most of the vessels are sportfishing boats, and their owners spend $138 million a year in operating costs. Sportfishing makes up for 2.13 percent of Costa Rica’s gross national product.

In 2005, Costa Rica Fishing Law 8346 was passed, with the following articles intended to give more protection to billfish: Article 72, which states “the executive authority of this law shall promote the conservation of species of sporting interest, realizing technical and scientific studies and promoting sustainable management policies”; and Article 76, stating “Sailfish (Istiophorus albidius), blue marlin (Makaira nigricans), black marlin (Makaira indica), striped marlin (Tetrapturus audax) and tarpon (Megalops atlanticus) are declared species of tourist-sport interest.”

But the law has never been respected or enforced.

The Costa Rican Tourist Fishing Federation (FECOPT), which lobbies for responsible and sustainable fishing methods in the country, presented its case recently in front of an audience of about 70 people in the auditorium of the Costa Rican Tourism Board (ICT) offices in San José. In attendance were representatives from the ICT, the Inter-Institutional Commission on Marinas and Tourist Docks (CIMAT), the U.S. Embassy, the Legislative Assembly and various tourism chambers. Many in the audience were surprised to find out what has been going on with sailfish in Costa Rica.

Export of sailfish out of Costa Rica became illegal in December 2008 as a measure to conserve the species. A 15 percent incidental bycatch – meaning fish found dead on lines – is allowed to be sold on the national market only. All live sailfish and marlin must be released by law. The group was shown recent reports of illegal export of 7,000 kilos of sailfish packaged as “marlin rosada” (pink marlin) published in more than 50 U.S. media outlets, giving Costa Rica’s “green” image a black eye.

Unsupervised unloading of commercial fleets has always been a problem, as has record keeping. Records released recently by the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) show that between 2000 and 2008 an average of 134 metric tons of sailfish were exported annually. There is no way to confirm this number with the Foreign Trade Promotion Office (Procomer) because sailfish has never had an export code in Costa Rica.

An interesting fact was revealed in the process of checking Procomer’s records. In the three years prior to the prohibition of sailfish exports, fewer than 100 metric tons of marlin were exported annually. In 2009, marlin exports skyrocketed to more than 300 metric tons, and, in 2010, a whopping 417 metric tons were exported. This leads to suspicion that sailfish is leaving the country reported as marlin. One must remember that longline fishing is a nonselective method of fishing, so it is not possible for the commercial fleet to target more marlin because of the prohibition on sailfish exports.

A lawsuit was filed recently by environmental attorney Diego Núñez, challenging the constitutionality of Incopesca’s board of directors. The entire board is made up of representatives of the commercial fishing sector. “This is having a private sector in charge of a public resource,” said Enrique Ramírez, executive director of FECOPT. “It is the same as if the loggers were in charge of the national parks.”

Panama and Guatemala are ready to take advantage of Costa Rica’s problems. Costa Rica, once known as “the sailfish capital of the world,” can no longer make that claim. Guatemala has imposed a fine of $5,000 for killing a sailfish and now touts itself as the sailfish capital of the world. Panama’s tourism minister, Salomón Shamah, after reading the University of Costa Rica study, said, “This is a growing industry, and Panama can and should be seen as a regional leader in this industry.” Panama recently banned tuna seiners and restricted longlining in its waters.

In response to the depletion of sailfish and in light of the species’ economic benefits to the country, Costa Rican legislator José Joaquín Porras of the Access Without Exclusion Party (PASE) recently submitted a bill to declare sailfish the “national fish of Costa Rica,” permitting only catch-and-release sportfishing and prohibiting commercialization of the species. While some of the opposition parties are already making the issue a political football, conservation proponents say Costa Rica’s marine resources should take precedence over political maneuvering.

Capt. Richard Chellemi, who lobbied more than two decades ago for sustainable management of sailfish, summed it up best: “With the economic studies validated by Ticos, they are running out of excuses, and the embarrassment will be tremendous when all this info is made common knowledge to the general public while the government continues to drag their feet. What little help sportfishing received from the government in the past was done in such a way that could be undone. They figured we would run out of steam sooner or later.”

Some 270,000 visitors come to Costa Rica each year to fish, but the lobbying voice is small because most of the user group does not live here. For this bill to pass, it needs support from within the country and from fishermen who visit or plan to visit here. There is plenty you can do to help, even from your desktop. To find out how, email FECOPT at

Fishing Report, June 23

The tarpon bite continues on the Caribbean coast at Tortuguero and Barra del Colorado. Americana Sportfishing had a group that traveled all the way from Russia to test the waters out of Tortuguero. They saw lots of tarpon and jack crevalle and everyone in the group took home a jungle tarpon memory. Eddie Brown echoes the report, saying anglers have been getting six to eight tarpon bites a day. He worked his way out toward a spot where he has been taking wahoo lately and hooked a surprise Atlantic sailfish.

Americana also sent the Dean Anderson family up to Guanacaste on the Pacific side to fish with Capt. Skeet Warren on the Bushwacker. They released a couple of sails and spent the better part of the rest of the day pulling on a 500-pound blue marlin. Other boats fishing in the north report a continued good sailfish bite as well as marlin action. Boats out of Los Sueños, on the central Pacific coast, have also been running north and fishing the southern part of the Nicoya Peninsula. They report good sailfish action, a few marlin and dorado.

Rolando Chaves checked in from the Central Pacific to say the inshore action has provided lots of roosterfish and mackerel action, and bottom fishing at the Furuno Bank produced some nice grouper and snapper. Leanne Batton of Quepos Sailfishing Charters had clients take some nice amberjack inshore, and offshore they are getting a few sails and marlin. Captains Christian and Esteban have both found black marlin in the 300-pound-plus range and yellowfin tuna up to 70 pounds for their guests. John Thompson from Dominical had a great day landing five sails.

Down south, we are still singing the billfish blues and waiting for our annual blast of marlin that always shows up this time of year. The lack of billfish hasn’t kept anglers from having a good time. Boats are averaging seven to 10 roosterfish a day, and they are no little “pollitos” either; some have been running 40 to 60 pounds.

Skippers, operators and anglers are invited to email fishing reports by Wednesday of each week to To post reports and photos on The Tico Times’ online fishing forum, go to


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