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Illegal Costa Rica Fishing Strains Gulf of Nicoya Communities

In Puerto Níspero, about 9 km from Puente de la Amistad in Guanacaste, Leandro Espinoza has just disembarked. It’s three o’clock in the afternoon, and the 67-year-old fisherman complains that today, like so many days, the encerradores have affected his haul.

This is one of the problems facing fishermen in the Gulf of Nicoya: a type of illegal fishing in which long nets are used to catch schools of fish in large quantities. The practice devastates all kinds of species and affects the available resources, leaving law-abiding fishermen at a disadvantage.

The Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA) estimates there are 80 to 100 vessels dedicated to illegal enclosure fishing in the Gulf of Nicoya. For Guanacaste fishermen, this and other problems are daily grievances that are rarely addressed.

When discussing Costa Rica’s fishing sector, attention usually falls to Puntarenas, since that province contains 80% of the country’s coast and is where the main fish landing center of the country is concentrated, according to a 2016 study of the United Nations Food Organization (FAO).

“There are many enclosure fishermen. That is what is hurting us. They take advantage of the lack of patrol,” says Espinoza, the fisherman from Puerto Níspero, under the July sun.

The demands of the national fisheries sector have magnified in recent months. On June 25, a group of workers from that sector knocked down a gate at Casa Presidencial and threw an explosive device into the garden because the president, Carlos Alvarado, had not agreed to a meeting.

Fishing sector representatives have been protagonists of extensive meetings with the government, though. Among its demands are concerns about the new value-added tax (VAT);  regulations on the use of electronic beacons in vessels; and the delivery of permits and licenses that allow regularization of conditions for informal fishermen.

There are also concerns specifically from fishermen in the Guanacaste province, which housed 25% of the 6,353 artisanal fishermen in the country, according to the 2011 census.

For example, they ask for the construction of more collection centers, where they can deliver their product once they finish at sea. This was explained by Martín Contreras, the president of the Chamber of Fishermen of Guanacaste.

“We told the municipalities that we had to look for a lot with the government to see the possibility of providing fishing communities with a collection center,” Contreras said.

The economy has also led to hard times, recognizes Carlos Rivas, the manager of a collection center in Puerto Pochote.

“We are in skinny times, but fat ones will come,” he says.

The practice of enclosure is particularly common in the Gulf of Nicoya because there are shallower areas where fish are more concentrated, explains Óscar Gutiérrez, who is in charge of controlling the National System of Conservation Areas (SINAC) of Puerto Níspero.

Gutiérrez adds that the groups who partake in this practice often use explosive devices such as bombetas to capture fish more easily.

Authorities say that confronting enclosure fishermen has become a difficult task, because the fishermen defend themselves with “arrows, springs and knives” that they throw at Coast Guards.

“The police of the sea are Coast Guards. What we do is coordinate through complaints that come to us with Coast Guards for them to act,” said Álvaro Otárola of INCOPESCA.

For his part, Enrique Alvarado Roldán, operational officer of the Coast Guard station of Puerto Níspero, acknowledged that most stations other than Caldera have very little staff.

“There are only 16 officials here, only one boat, and it is out of service: the engines no longer work,” the officer acknowledged.

The Coast Guard officer warned that illegal fishing by enclosure in the Gulf of Nicoya happens every day and involves many people.

“Each boat can carry three to four people, and you often see 15 or 20 boats. Up to 30 vessels have been seen making a single enclosure,” Alvarado described.

“The situation seems to have worsened due to the economic strain. There is less work and employment opportunities; in fact, most of the enclosure fishermen are young people.”

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A version of this story was originally published by Semanario Universidad on August 13, 2019. It was translated and republished with permission by The Tico Times. Read the original report at Semanario Universidad here.

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