By Enrique Ramírez Guier | Director, Costa Rican Fishing Federation (FECOP)
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) latest report on the state of world fisheries and aquaculture, more than 80 percent of world fisheries are fully exploited, overexploited or depleted, affecting the stability of fishery resources.
Costa Rica is no exception. The major impact on the marine ecosystem in our country is that of overfishing with nonselective fishing gear. Between 2000 and 2007, total volume of fisheries products decreased by 40 percent, and by 2012, this decrease has probably reached 50 percent or more. This is the result of extractive fisheries policies – more comparable to those of the 17th century – in which the prevailing criteria are maximum capture, least possible effort, lowest cost and as quickly as possible.
FAO and World Bank data indicate the world economy could recover up to $50 billion annually should fish stocks be restored and the fishing effort reduced to optimal levels. In Costa Rica, we are lacking this type of study, as there is no planning involved in the management of fishery resources.
When nations around the world declared exclusive economic zones in the 1970s and 80s, one-third of the planet’s oceans came under control for the very first time, and countries started to take control of their fisheries and resources. Beyond these limits, the prevailing law of the sea has not changed since 1650.
In Costa Rica, however, tuna-fishing vessels operate 12 miles from the coast with the consent of authorities, interfering with sportfishing as an economic sector and capturing huge quantities of juvenile fish with purse seines, and some with fish-aggregating devices, especially mahi mahi. On several occasions, these foreign-owned vessels have frightened families of visiting tourists with sticks of dynamite to keep them out of the way while they take tuna from our waters.
The depletion of resources due to excessive fishing of shrimp populations has resulted in shrimp-fishing vehicles directing their trawl nets at stocks of conger, snappers and sea bass very close to the coast, competing unfairly with the fleet of artisanal fishers using handlines. Some shrimp vessels have offloaded up to 11 tons of fish – equivalent to three dump trucks – as bycatch from one single vessel, inundating the local market. Such practices drive prices down and deprive more than 14,000 artisanal fishers and their families of their livelihoods for several months at a time.
It is estimated that the average waste of unusable discards from shrimp is around 80 percent of total catch. In spite of this reality, the country has no technical or scientific criterion, proportionality or rationality through which to establish a limit to the highly convenient and indefinite concept of bycatch, as a result of which sanctions are conspicuous by their absence in this plundering of our seas.
After the Second World War, the Asian fleet started industrial fishing along the Japanese archipelago, and 15 years later, stocks had dropped by 80 percent. They now seek out alternative stocks heading to the eastern Pacific using nonselective surface-longline-fishing gear mainly used for catching sharks. Currently more than 79 million sharks are killed on an annual basis as a result of surface longlines, and it is estimated that 90 percent of the world’s shark populations have disappeared as a result of the lucrative trade in finning, a status symbol of an economically powerful group and part of an unsustainable economic model of consumerism.
Longline fishing involves a single line up to 80 miles long with 3,000 baited hooks. It involves sacrificing other species such as porpoises for bait. This form of fishing can hook up to 40 turtles in one cast, in addition to marlin, sailfish and even sea birds, and has a profound impact on biodiversity and the Costa Rican economy. Nonetheless, we open our ports and docks to these foreign fleets leaving the country with only losses and disrepute.
Surface-longline fishing also affects the fishing-tourism sector. More than 85 percent of marlin and 90 percent of sailfish populations have disappeared from the Pacific coast due to longlining. The Asian fleet has a curtain of more than 10 million hooks along the Pacific coast, preventing seasonal migrations of marlin, sailfish, sharks and mahi mahi.
We have devalued our natural capital that is the basis of a blue economy. But there is still time. Costa Rican seas are a potential source of recreation, tourism, responsible fishing and sportfishing. Here, tourism contributes 25 percent to gross domestic product, and visits to coral reefs generate an estimated $2 billion annually.
The Bahamas values a live shark at $250,000 as a result of visits from scuba divers, while dead it is valued at only $50. In Palau – where a shark sanctuary was declared in 2009 – the life of 100 sharks is valued at $1.9 million during their lifecycles, while finned and dead they would be worth a mere $11,000.
The University of Costa Rica places a value of $3,000 on a live sailfish, while dead it is worth only ₡1,400 ($3) per kilo at the wholesale market CENADA. We are eating our natural capital.
The university’s study indicates that sportfishing attracts more than 100,000 tourists annually and is responsible for creating 4,000 direct jobs and 63,000 indirect ones, and for generating a gross income of almost 2 percent of GDP. But fishing tourists are not returning because fishing tourism is on the decline. Sportfishing is another means to ensure natural capital is benefited from indefinitely, if we are able to save these animals from nonselective fishing practices, such as surface longlining.
Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing have been created by organized coastal communities in addressing deteriorating fish stocks, food insecurity, lack of regulations and the absence of fish-resource management. The Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing of Palito en Chira, Tárcoles, Golfo Dulce and, more recently, San Juanillo, have made great efforts to organize themselves and take the preliminary steps toward implementation of a management model. While FAO is considering this initiative as exportable to other fishing communities along the eastern Pacific, fishing authorities in this country have not deigned to reply to this community effort, while 12 shrimp vessels trawl all the fish along the coast of Guiones and San Juanillo.
We must recuperate our oceans and our heritage. The sea is part of the environment, and our main economic wealth lies in our biodiversity. Through responsible resource management we can invigorate a blue economy. Through the contribution and cooperation of scientists, fishers, economists, students, government authorities and civil society, we can develop and strengthen the Marine Areas for Responsible Fishing along the whole coast. We can convert indiscriminate fishing gear into selective fishing gear that improves incomes and reduces bycatch, thereby recovering and encouraging fishing tourism as an integral part of economic development.
We can also establish laws and regulations pertaining to the use of marine areas, favor the development of biological corridors to guarantee the free migration of species, and establish the basis of a coastal economic policy that increases productivity of our natural capital and the responsible use of marine resources instead of an extractive policy that depletes them.
We have 567,000 square kilometers of territory that need to be rediscovered. Let’s bring afloat what is happening to our seas. Let’s support the blue agenda in Costa Rica and responsible fishing policies. It is a question of economic policy and national sovereignty.
Sponsored by Costa Rican Fishing Federation (FECOP)