President Luis Guillermo Solís signed a decree Tuesday restricting industrial tuna fishing in Costa Rican waters. The decree is one of the first attempts to establish fishing zones in Costa Rica’s massive ocean territory and regulate the international super fleets that currently pull in the vast majority of the country’s tuna catch. But despite the decree’s intentions, many environmentalists say it will do little to curb unsustainable fishing practices in Costa Rican waters.
According to a 10-year study by the Costa Rican Fishing Federation (FECOP), foreign-flagged purse seine ships captured 90 percent of the tuna caught in Costa Rican waters between 2002 and 2011. The giant ships are able to scoop up entire schools of tuna at once by sending out small go-fast boats to encircle tuna schools with nets and haul the fish aboard with cranes. Under current fishing regulations licensed purse seine boats are permitted to fish in all but the first 12 miles of Costa Rica’s unprotected ocean territory, a system that the decree’s proponents say cripples Costa Rica’s smaller-scale fishermen.
“The country is losing the economic rewards that tuna provides by giving it away to international boats,” said Enrique Ramírez, executive director of FECOP, which helped draft the initial decree. “Small national boats can fish sustainably, get a better price for high-quality tuna and all of that money will stay within Costa Rica instead of the profits ending up in some other country.”
(Disclosure: Tico Times reporter Lindsay Fendt worked as a freelance translator for FECOP in 2013.)
FECOP, a sportfishing and environmental interest group, and groups of local longline fishermen spearheaded the decree’s creation during the administration of former President Laura Chinchilla (2010-2014). Before leaving office in May, Chinchilla signed a tuna zoning bill that restricted purse seine fishing in the first 60 miles of Costa Rica’s Pacific coastline, but she failed to order its publication in the official government newspaper, La Gaceta, which would put the law into effect. The decree’s fate then fell to Solís’ new government, which took several months to analyze it before drafting a new one.
The new regulations ban purse seine fishing in the first 45 nautical miles off the Pacific coastline as well as in a section of Costa Rican waters bordering Ecuador’s ocean territory. They will also restrict large-scale longline fishing in the first 12 miles off the coast. The decree was reached as a compromise between executives at the national tuna cannery, who oppose any tuna fishing restrictions, and national fishermen, who oppose all purse seine competition. Despite the move by the Solís administration to limit purse seine fishing, some environmental groups have criticized the decree, contending that it will do little to slow the negative environmental effects of the tuna fishing industry.
Big tuna’s beef with the decree
The Costa Rican tuna-canning giant, Sardimar, has opposed the decree from the beginning.
Current fishing licensing laws allow international purse seiners to renew their licenses for free if they sell a month’s worth of cargo (a 300-ton minimum) to Costa Rican canneries. The regulation allows Sardimar — under the parent company Alimentos Prosalud, which owns every cannery in the country — to purchase tuna at below-market prices. The advantage has turned Sardimar into the region’s dominant cannery, commanding 70 percent of the Central American tuna market.
“Changes to the system could cause us to lose our competitive edge in an extremely competitive industry,” Asdrubal Vásquez, the president of the Costa Rican Tuna Industry Chamber (CATUN), told The Tico Times in June. “We are worried that restricting where boats can fish will mean international boats won’t want to come to Costa Rica and we will not be able to get the raw materials we need.”
CATUN members were so concerned that they threatened to pull Sardimar out of Costa Rica if the decree was signed, eliminating 1,500 jobs in the Pacific province of Puntarenas. In order to appease the cannery, the decree includes an article that would permit purse seine ships to enter the restricted zone if Sardimar can demonstrate a lack of tuna. It remains to be seen if Sardimar will follow through on its threat now that the decree has been passed, but the cannery is unlikely to find a steady stream of subsidized tuna elsewhere.
According to Gustavo Meneses, director of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), the old decree was lopsided, restricting purse seine fishing while leaving large-scale longline fishing unregulated.
“We wanted to create a more equal decree,” said Meneses. “The old regulations didn’t resolve the problem with unfair competition, it just tilted the scales to give the longline and sportfishing sectors an advantage.”
The new decree bans longline fishing in the first 12 nautical miles off the coast, leaving that section for smaller and more sustainable fishing methods. Still, commercial fishing operations argue that Costa Rica’s Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) — the first 200 miles within a country’s coast, in which that country has exclusive economic rights — should be reserved for Costa Ricans.
“This was a compromise,” said Mauricio González, executive director of a Pacific organization that represents the country’s longline fishermen. “If it was up to us, there would be no purse seine fishing in the entire EEZ.”
Protecting dolphins is the main environmental motivation behind restricting purse seine fishing. Because pods of dolphins often travel with schools of tuna, industrial tuna boats frequently snare dolphins when they cast their nets. According to the Inter-American Tropical Tuna Commission, 68 percent of purse seine nets cast in Costa Rican waters are thrown over dolphin pods. This fishing practice has killed between 5 and 7 million dolphins since 1950 worldwide, environmental groups estimate.
The lack of tuna fishing regulations in Costa Rica has long spurred disdain from dolphin conservation groups, and in June the California-based nonprofit group Earth Island Institute said they would pull their “dolphin-safe” labels from cans of Costa Rican tuna if the tuna zoning decree was not passed.
“At this point it is mostly for dolphins,” Ramírez said. “You still have a lot of other environmental problems, but this will help avoid damage to more dolphins.”
But beyond saving dolphins, environmentalists say the decree will do very little for Costa Rica’s overfishing and bycatch problems. Though longline boats catch far fewer fish than purse seine ships, they still unintentionally pull in large amounts of other sea creatures. In 2013, longline fishing was the likely killer of hundreds of sea turtles in Costa Rica alone.
The sportfishing sector, which has suffered from competing with purse seiners, also stands to gain from the decree. Despite Meneses claims that the current decree is more balanced, environmentalists say that it simply shifts the advantages from one industry to another.
“It’s like taking from Peter to give to Paul,” said Randall Arauz, whose conservation group, Pretoma, was consulted by INCOPESCA during the decree’s revision.
Marco Quesada with Conservation International agreed.
“The decree makes no real changes. Even the restrictions it makes on purse seiners come with an out if the industry gets angry,” Quesada said. “I don’t think this decree has any teeth, and I don’t see anything changing.”
Meneses is not deaf to the complaints from environmental groups. With the passage of the decree, Meneses also announced INCOPESCA’s plans to create a more comprehensive fishing plan for the country, promising an integrated management plan for the country’s fisheries within the year. Though the specifics of this plan have yet to be announced, Meneses told The Tico Times during an interview in July that the institute is considering plans for more zoning, establishing fishing seasons and cracking down on bycatch violations.
“To the environmentalists who are upset, all I can say is that we are working on it,” he told The Tico Times.
Since its creation, INCOPESCA has been considered a do-nothing organization by most marine conservationists. With a board of directors loaded with industry insiders, the fishing management institution has been accused of serious conflicts of interest. But Meneses hopes to change that reputation in his four-year term.
“Right now there is just not an integrated plan for our marine resources,” Meneses told The Tico Times. “It’s no small task, but ideally I will leave INCOPESCA in four years having left beyond a roadmap to sustainable management in our oceans.”