Despite an initial wave of support from environmentalists, Costa Rica’s planned shrimp trawling ban has come under fire over the past month, and now, with a new bill being drafted, it may be done away with altogether.
The Constitutional Chamber of the Supreme Court, or Sala IV, found the practice of shrimp trawling unconstitutional on Aug. 4, due to its damaging effects on the marine ecosystem. While the courts barred the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca) from issuing new shrimp trawling licenses, the 44 vessels with trawling permits granted before the ruling will be allowed to use them until they expire, the last of which is in 2019.
While environmental groups celebrated, the shrimp fishing industry mobilized. A week after the ruling, shrimp trawlers clogged the main route from Caldera to Puntarenas, both on the central Pacific coast, blocking traffic for hours. That same day lawmaker Rodolfo Sotomayor, from the Social Christian Unity Party, introduced a bill that could, once again, make shrimp trawling legal.
“Our intention is to regulate trawling using the parameters established by the courts in regards to sustainability and reason,” Sotomayor told Costa Rican news radio host Amelia Rueda the day of the bill’s announcement.
That bill comes has the support of Incopesca – a semi-autonomous agency that has long supported industrial fishing – the Fishermen’s Union of Puntarenas and both the ministers of agriculture and livestock and labor. According Luís Dobles, Incopesca’s executive president, the draft hinges on a line in the Sala IV ruling that would allow for trawling if there was a “significant reduction” in the amount of bycatch.
The trawlers currently licensed to operate in Costa Rica do so with almost no restrictions. Without bycatch limits, shrimp trawling boats are able to cast their nets over schools of any type of fish. This intentional “bycatch” is sometimes more valuable than the shrimp the vessels are licensed to catch, and depletes fisheries that support small-scale fishing operations.
According to MarViva, the environmental organization that spearheaded the Sala IV lawsuit, shrimp make up slightly more than 13 percent of the species captured by trawling nets.
“Right now without regulation we have no control over whether these fleets capture 30, 40, 50, even 70 percent bycatch,” Dobles told The Tico Times. “If we regulate it we can lower those numbers.”
Bycatch caps, and depth and time limits are among the regulations on the table. Dobles said that internationally accredited inspectors would join trawlers on fishing trips to enforce the regulations.
However, the use of inspectors in the past has been easily circumvented by industrial fishing fleets facing little enforcement, and promises of restrictions have done little to allay the fears of environmental groups and small-scale fishing operations that still oppose trawling.
“They say they’ll make it sustainable,” said William Carrión, a member of the union for artisanal fishermen and fishing industry workers, “but we fishermen know that that isn’t possible; there isn’t a country in the world with the technology to make trawling a responsible and selective practice.”
Trawling is widely regarded as one of the world’s most destructive fishing practices. In Costa Rica it is estimated that shrimp fisheries declined by more than 50 percent between 1997 and 2007. Other fisheries also have depleted, leaving 12,000 artisanal fishermen on the Pacific without jobs, according to MarViva.
Fishing unions also have questioned Incopesca’s ability and will to enforce the regulations, based on a long history of the agency siding with industrial fleets on conservation issues.
“Right now in the Gulf of Nicoya there are people fishing with illegal nets,” Carrión said. “If Incopesca can’t enforce the little regulation there is now, how will they be able to enforce all of these new regulations?”
Complaints of unenforced regulations are nothing new for Incopesca. In 2009, the United States banned the import of Costa Rican shrimp after discovering that the regulatory agency failed to sanction vessels that did not use turtle excluder devices (TEDs) on their nets. More recently, illegal long-line fishing in the southern Pacific’s Golfo Dulce led to the deaths of more than 290 turtles. The perpetrators were never caught.
Even with a shrimp-trawling ban, fishermen affected by declining fisheries say it is not a catch-all answer to the problem.
“The solution is not simply to eliminate trawling,” said Rolando Ramírez with the Fishermen’s Association. “We need to regulate nets, we need to find alternatives for these communities that rely too heavily on fishing, but every time we try to do these things we just end up hitting a wall.”