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Too many whale-watching boats in Costa Rica’s Ballena Nat’l Marine Park, say environment officials

August 13, 2014

An increase in the number of whale-watching tours in southern Costa Rica’s Ballena National Marine Park has prompted officials from the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) to increase monitoring and regulation in the area.

A large number of tourist boats could threaten the presence of whales, dolphins, stingrays and sharks in the park, located near Uvita on the Pacific coast, environment officials said. Biologists consider the protected area a perfect location between the northern and southern hemispheres for the birth of new generations of marine mammals and other species.

On their arrival, whales enter into a trance, and any abrupt change to their natural habitat could cause them to migrate to other areas with less suitable conditions for giving birth to calves – a direct threat to their species, biologists say.

“Ballena National Marine Park is a maternity ward for many species that are affected by bad practices from the tourism sector, such as disrespecting the distance from which to watch the whales or the use of unsuitable boat engines whose excessive noise alters the species’ behavior,” said Zdenka Pisculich, director of the nongovernmental conservation group “Asociación Costa Rica por Siempre.”

This week the NGO donated ₡40 million ($75,000) to SINAC​​ for equipment and other resources to improve surveillance of tourism vessels during the area’s high season, which reaches its peak in September.

The investment is part of $240,000 that SINAC plans to spend over the next two years in the Osa Conservation Area, which comprises the protected areas of Ballena National Marine Park, Piedras Blancas National Park, Corcovado National Park and Caño Island Biological Reserve, the agency reported.

SINAC’s increased surveillance also aims at enforcing the Fisheries and Aquaculture Law #8436, which calls for fines and penalties of up to three years in prison “for those who pursue, capture, injure, kill or trade marine mammals, or endangered and protected marine species.”

Tourism is one of the main sources of income for the Osa region. Residents of the Ballena Bay area each year hold a traditional Whale Festival to mark the annual visit of humpback whales to the Ballena National Marine Park.

The festival is held over two weekends, and this year it is scheduled for Sept. 5-7 and Sept. 12-14. Activities include whale-watching tours, athletics and cycling races, sand-sculpture contests, photography exhibits, concerts and environmental workshops and lectures.

The Ballena National Park covers an area of 110 hectares of land and 5,375 marine hectares. It was created in 1989 and currently receives humpback whales, common and bottlenose dolphins, stingrays and hammerhead sharks.

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