From the print edition
By David Boddiger and Steve Ercolani | Tico Times Staff
Efforts by the administration of President Laura Chinchilla to clean house at the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) continued this week, as officials pondered the fate of Incopesca President Luis Dobles.
Dobles has not been fired, but sources with knowledge of discussions taking place within the administration told The Tico Times Dobles could be ousted in coming weeks.
Last Friday, Communications Minister Francisco Chacón denied the rumors. At Tuesday’s weekly Cabinet meeting, Environment Minister René Castro said, “The government will be meeting in the next few days to discuss the future of Incopesca, including President Luis Dobles. But it’s not the Environment Ministry’s decision, it’s the Agriculture Ministry’s.”
Last week, Chinchilla’s Cabinet fired Incopesca Vice President Álvaro Moreno, citing multiple ethics violations concerning his ties to the commercial shrimping industry, based in the central Pacific city of Puntarenas.
Since 2010, Moreno served as the agency’s vice president, a four-year post. He also was appointed vice president of Incopesca’s board of directors.
Dobles and Moreno are two controversial figures who, until Moreno’s firing, led an agency charged with regulating Costa Rica’s commercial fishing industry and promoting conservation policies to protect marine wildlife.
The Puntarenas Prosecutor’s Office this week confirmed it is actively investigating Dobles and others in relation to a series of incidents in late 2011, when four fishing vessels landed shark fins at a public dock in Puntarenas (TT, Oct. 14, 2011). The fins were attached only to the sharks’ spines, with flesh and bones shaved away.
According to Puntarenas Assistant Prosecutor Tatiana Chaves, the landing of fins attached only to shark spines is a violation of Costa Rica’s Fishing Law and Agriculture and Livestock Ministry Decree 34,928, which prohibits shark finning, a practice that involves slicing lucrative shark fins from the body and dumping less-valuable meat and carcasses overboard.
Shark finning is a multimillion-dollar industry that fuels demand for shark fin soup, a delicacy in many Asian countries, most notably China and Taiwan. Conservationists say that most longlining fishing vessels operating in Costa Rican waters and throughout Central America participate in the gruesome practice.
The Puntarenas Prosecutor’s Office is investigating Dobles for allegedly authorizing in 2011 the ship Wang Jia Men 89 to unload 36 shark carcasses with fins attached. The office is also investigating Katy Tseng Chang, legal representative of three boats flying Belizean flags and charged with the same infraction.
“They were trying to circumvent the law by unloading fins only attached to the skeleton,” Chaves said in an email. “It is a tactic by fishermen to save space on board and transport more shark fins, leading to overfishing and waste of marine resources; in addition, the bleeding out of sharks without proper sanitary measures can generate toxins that could affect people’s health.”
The fourth case under investigation by Puntarenas prosecutors was filed Aug. 11 against the Costa Rican ship Los Pericos and its captain, Daniel Obando, whose crew was caught illegally fishing at Isla del Coco National Marine Park with 27 shark fins on board. According to Chaves, Obando was briefly detained and must check in with authorities monthly, pending a court hearing. The vessel was temporarily seized.
Two similar cases brought by prosecutor’s offices in Aguirre and Parrita, also on the Pacific coast, await preliminary hearings.
Except for a handful of park rangers who live there, Isla del Coco is an uninhabited national marine park 365 miles west of Puntarenas. It belongs to an important marine biological corridor extending to Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands. It is also a marine sanctuary for several species of sharks, including the hammerhead, which Costa Rica is actively working to place on the list of endangered species under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora, or CITES.
Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Project, which has filed several injunctions against Incopesca in the past decade, and who recently returned from a research trip to Isla del Coco, said shark populations are dwindling around the island.
In the past, hundreds of hammerheads could be spotted, Arauz said, but during his recent trip, he saw only about 100.
“They’re not coming back,” he said.
Yet, for every successful detention at the park, dozens of other boats avoid being caught, he said.
“They’re sitting at the 12-mile line, and at night, they come in the park to fish and then leave before anyone can get there,” Arauz said.
Coast Guard officials said they are doing their best to crack down on illegal fishing, but they are limited by few resources and loopholes that only allow officials to prosecute boat crews caught red-handed. With a limited number of boats and crew, Coast Guard officials also must divide their time between policing for illegal drug trafficking and cracking down on poachers.
In many cases, park rangers can detect boats, but the Coast Guard can’t get there in time to obtain evidence needed for prosecution, officials said.
“The Coast Guard simply does not have the capacity to pursue so many boats,” Public Security Vice Minister Celso Gamboa told The Tico Times.
When the ship Los Pericos was caught illegally fishing at Isla del Coco, 14 other boats reportedly were spotted in the area.
“There was no way of knowing if the other boats were shark finning,” Coast Guard Director Martín Arias said. “Many boats seek water and supplies at Cocos Island.”
Still, Arias said officials are committed to policing shark finners in Costa Rican waters, particularly given the country’s recent bad press over its extradition request for marine conservationist Paul Watson, founder of Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, over a 2012 clash with a Costa Rican vessel accused of shark finning in Guatemalan waters.
Arias pointed out that in the past year, 12 cases of shark finning have been sent to the courts. But processing the cases could take up to two years, he said.
The country’s prosecutors also are increasingly attuned to pursuing cases of illegal fishing and shark finning, despite shortcomings in the country’s Fishing Law, Chaves said.
“The Puntarenas Prosecutor’s Office has actively investigated and prosecuted crimes related to shark finning, investing a significant amount of time and resources,” Chaves said. “We recognize the enormous scourge that this reprehensible practice represents, which not only places the country’s food security at risk, but also is incredibly environmentally damaging.”
The country’s Chief Public Prosecutor also has briefed regional offices on how to use the Fishing Law to investigate and prosecute shark-finning crimes.
Nevertheless, both Chaves and the Chief Public Prosecutor’s Office in San José acknowledge that a reform to the Fishing Law is needed to close loopholes, provide stiffer penalties for violators and arm prosecutors with better tools to try cases.
A shrimper for life
Last week’s firing of former Incopesca Vice President Álvaro Moreno is a signal that the Chinchilla administration is aware of ongoing conflicts of interest at the agency, a charge that marine conservationists have been pointing out for more than a decade. Moreno comes from a family of Spanish immigrants, who arrived in Costa Rica in the 1950s and helped established the country’s shrimping industry.
The problem, legal experts say, is that according to Incopesca’s charter, the majority of its nine-member board of directors is composed of fishing industry insiders, including representatives from fishing organizations in each of the three coastal provinces (Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón), a representative of the commercial fishing export sector and a representative of the National Commission on Aquaculture and Fish.
Moreno was nominated as the board’s vice president by fellow board members, the majority of whom represent fishing-industry interests.
Still, according to the agency’s charter, board members are tasked with “promoting, based on scientific and technical criteria, the conservation and sustainable use of aquaculture and marine biological resources.”
After he was sacked, Moreno told the daily La Nación, “If I get fired for defending fishermen, I accept that. Let them fire me. I will continue defending fishermen from whatever trench I’m in.”
Taking (delayed) action
In July, Chinchilla unveiled a plan to improve sustainable management of the country’s marine resources, signing several decrees that created a new Cabinet-level National Marine Commission and a Waters and Oceans Vice Ministry, along with other measures. The president’s “blue agenda” was based on a marine advisory committee report that also recommended an overhaul of Incopesca’s board.
“We recommend a revision of Incopesca’s Charter Law in order to change its institutional structure. This includes significant modifications of its board of directors to ensure the public interest is protected during decision making,” the committee report stated.
Meanwhile, the executive branch’s Public Ethics Office was compiling a report of alleged ethics violations committed by Moreno while he served as Incopesca’s vice president. The report was based on a complaint filed in November 2011 alleging that he provided legal representation to commercial fishermen and owners of semi-industrial fishing vessels while serving at the government agency charged with enforcing regulations on his own clients.
The report, which was submitted to Chinchilla’s Cabinet in January, cited numerous ethics infractions, including infringement of Costa Rica’s anti-corruption law, abandonment of duties, irregular acceptance of a temporary government salary and violation of rules prohibiting Moreno from practicing law at his private firm while serving on Incopesca’s board.
A later case involved a May lawsuit filed by environmental groups before the Constitutional Branch of the Supreme Court. The lawsuit sought an injunction against Incopesca for issuing licenses to Costa Rican shrimp boats that employ the environmentally destructive technique of bottom trawling.
In June, Moreno issued a court filing challenging the lawsuit on behalf of Incopesca and several shrimp boat owners and fishing companies. The filing was printed on stationary from Moreno’s private law practice in Puntarenas.
“It shouldn’t be possible that in this lawsuit, the same person [Moreno] is judge and party [to the suit]; he used his own stationary to defend against the charges,” said Citizen Action Party lawmaker María Eugenia Venegas, who along with environmental groups pressured Chinchilla’s Cabinet to sack Moreno.
He also provided legal representation for six crew members of a shrimp trawler caught in 2009 fishing without using Turtle Excluder Devices, a violation of Costa Rica’s fishing law, the daily La Nación reported in January. The ethics office also reviewed that case and found Moreno in violation of ethics and corruption laws.
Confronted with the information from the ethics office, Dobles did not launch administrative proceedings against Moreno, telling La Nación, “Legally, it’s not our job to do that.”
In April, Moreno testified before Cabinet members in response to the ethics office report, bringing Dobles as a witness.
On May 4, the Cabinet extended by two months its period of review of the case, promising a ruling on July 7. Nearly two months later, following intense lobbying by conservation groups and two lawmakers, the administration moved to fire Moreno.
“They delayed and delayed and delayed,” Venegas said.
Still, environmental groups applauded the decision. “We are satisfied with the Cabinet’s decision [to fire Moreno], as marine resources belong to all Costa Ricans and they shouldn’t be administered by someone with private interests,” Jorge Jiménez, general director of marine conservation group MarViva, said in a statement. “This is a good first step, which highlights the need for operational, functional and structural reform at Incopesca to prevent cases like Mr. Moreno’s from recurring.”