Eight Costa Rican and international environmental organizations united under the umbrella group Frente por Nuestros Mares recently sent President Laura Chinchilla a letter with more than 6,500 signatures calling for the reform of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (Incopesca), the agency charged with regulating the country’s marine resources.
The group continues collecting signatures for the petition online here. That petition calls for, among other things, the elimination of Incopesca’s board of directors, which critics note is loaded with commercial fishing interests, a reality that Chinchilla’s own Cabinet-level National Marine Commission acknowledged last year.
Environmental groups accuse Incopesca of “ignoring its mission to protect marine resources and favoring the interests of industrial and semi-industrial fishing fleets,” according to the petition.
Incopesca’s charter tasks the agency with “promoting, based on scientific and technical criteria, the conservation and sustainable use of aquaculture and marine biological resources.” Yet its nine-member board includes representatives from fishing organizations in each of the three coastal provinces – Puntarenas, Guanacaste and Limón – as well as representatives from the commercial fishing export sector and the National Commission on Aquaculture and Fish.
“You cannot be judge and jury, and Incopesca flagrantly violates this principle,” the group charges.
The campaign lists 10 reasons why Incopesca officials are failing at their jobs, and notes that at least one board member – executive president Luis Dobles – is under criminal investigation for derelict of duty.
In addition, in August 2012, the Chinchilla administration fired Incopesca Vice President Álvaro Moreno for ethics violations that included representing the shrimping industry as an attorney while working for the agency tasked with regulating it.
A complaint filed by the Public Ethics Office earlier that year stated that Moreno provided legal consul to a group of fishermen who were detained in 2009 for fishing without using Turtle Excluder Devices, which are required by law, while acting as Incopesca’s vice president. He served as acting president of the agency on several occasions when Dobles was out of the country.
The NGOs also accuse Incopesca of an “irregular” program to provide subsidized fuel to the fishing industry, failure to prevent overfishing by shrimp and tuna fleets, and inaction on shark-finning. And they say Incopesca has fallen short on efforts to support artisanal fishermen who can’t compete against industrial fleets.
Dobles, whose relationship with conservation groups could be described as contentious at best, responded to the campaign by telling The Tico Times that environmentalists’ arguments “are really old.”
“They regularly launch these campaigns to keep their presence in the media alive,” he said.
The structure of Incopesca’s board “is not my invention, nor the agency’s, nor even the current administration’s. It follows the law that created Incopesca,” he said.
Dobles added that Incopesca was created by an executive decree in 1994, and the establishment of the board is outlined in Article 7 of that law.
“Only the Legislative Assembly can order a change in the administrative structure,” he said, adding that a similar recommendation was ruled out by a “committee of government officials last year.”
In 2011, representatives of five government ministries formed the National Marine Commission at Chinchilla’s request to study and draft new policiesfor the protection of marine resource and the management of Costa Rica’s ports.
The commission recommended revising Incopesca’s charter to ensure the agency maintained independence and acted in the public interest.
Last January, a blue-ribbon panel also created by Chinchilla issued 95 recommendations to improve the country’s governance. The panel recommended the elimination of the boards of 83 government agencies.
“We will accept any decision on this matter, but according to the law, it has to come from the Legislative Assembly, not the executive branch,” Dobles said.
Frente por Nuestros Mares is using its website and Facebook page to highlight the damage caused by industrial fishing to marine ecosystems and to artisanal fishermen in Costa Rica.
The campaign includes infographics, memes and two video testimonials highlighting the environmental consequences of commercial fishing, particularly by shrimping fleets “that are sweeping away the seabed.”
The spots include testimonies from Central Pacific fishermen who narrate how their catch is insufficient even for personal consumption because of the desolation left by large fishing fleets.
The videos also include opinions by experts including Álvaro Morales, director of the University of Costa Rica’s Oceanic Sciences and Limnology Research Center, who said that marine resource exploitation in Costa Rica “has been too severe,” and that he believes “the country’s fishing fleet has been allowed to increase without any planning or consideration for marine resources.”
The Frente includes conservation groups Pretoma, Keto, Promar Foundation, International Student Volunteers, Sea Save Foundation, The Leatherback Trust, UESPRA and Widecast.
As of Wednesday, the Frente had received no response from government officials. According to Pretoma’s Mariano Castro, the group will meet next week to evaluate the campaign’s response and to plan future actions.