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HomeNewsCosta RicaCharter Fishing Operators in Costa Rica….. Stop being Idiots!

Charter Fishing Operators in Costa Rica….. Stop being Idiots!

This old fisherman is about to open another can of worms.

Disclaimer: The opinions expressed in this article are mine and mine alone and not necessarily that of any organization I work for or volunteer with.

There are events that happen in our lives that dictate our thoughts, feelings, and actions. Let me preface this article with my latest events for a brief minute and it might help explain my headline.

About 18 months ago I was diagnosed with a tumor. Since then I have lost 70 lbs, had 5 surgeries and more or less had my whole plumbing system reconstructed. After my last procedure I ended up internally bleeding, back in the hospital and needed a blood transfusion. For more than a month after discharge I wasn´t any better and I was actually beginning to think it was all for not, and I might be on my way out.

Then a small miracle happened. Out of the blue I got a visit from an ex-employee I hadn´t seen in a long time. He was a good employee, intelligent and could fix anything. He had one demon though, alcohol, and after several second chances and a failed attempts at rehab I finally fired him.

The day after his visit I received this message from him,

“Good morning boss, I wanted to tell you something… Yesterday I went to sleep and I almost couldn’t. I came out a little sad but more than anything because I saw you somewhat defeated, like when one loses faith in life and you have always been the person who in my moments of faltering has given me strength with your words… you have always had good advice to give me and I have always appreciated it from you.

You are not the type of person who lets themselves be defeated… you are one of those who get ahead and lead others with your strength.
You defeated alcohol and you have maintained yourself for years… something that I am just beginning to experience… You have resisted even the strongest surgery that exists… that of the heart.

I don’t think God wants to take you now after having given you the strength to endure so many things. You are an example to follow, So I hope to see you better every day…

That note changed my attitude. A week or so later I woke up feeling a little better, then another day, and another. I remembered the words of a Korean women I respect very much when she was talking about failures and learning from them. Her words. “Winners never quit, and quitters never win,”  stuck.

So each day has been a little better. I still have a long way to go and by mid-afternoon I am exhausted but I´m up in the morning doing light exercises, my brain functions enough to get back to writing. I feel like a bear coming out of a long hibernation, And like the bear, I am rediscovering the world, hungry and a little grumpy. I think the fact that I haven’t been able to fish in over a year and a half has contributed to my grumpiness.

So am I qualified to voice my opinion on the charter business? I think so. I have been in the charter business here for 32 years, managed some of the biggest operations in Central America hired hundreds of captains and mates and dealt with thousands of happy and not so happy customers. For the last 24 years I have been at Crocodile Bay as Fishing Director for 20 years and now as a consultant. In our hay day we had 30 boats on the water daily during high season.

Many captains and mates working on boats in the many marinas now in Costa Rica, got their start at Crocodile. It feels good when I visit marinas and bump into them. Many are now running 40, 50, 60 footers and larger. They still call me boss and it actually feels good watching how they have grown. It is like watching one of your kids become successful.

I have also written on and off since 1995 for the Tico Times depending who was the editor at the time and if they liked sport fishing as well as other publications and magazines.

Here we go…

There are just over 500 boats registered in Costa Rica as Tourist Fishing, (charter operations). There are roughly 2218 boats registered as commercial fishermen. Of all the money collected by INCOPESCA, the governing board for fisheries, 75% of the monies collected from license fees is from tourist fishing boats and the 125 or so boats registered as recreational.

The board of INCOPESCA is heavily favor by members in the commercial fishing business and board has very little representation for the sport fishing sector. They make many regulations that sound good on paper but with giant loopholes and nearly no chance of enforcement. How does a group that only pays 25% of license fees control the fishery?

One it helps the people making decisions are heavily favored in the business of catching, selling, and exporting seafood. The commercial fishing sector is united. They are a brotherhood. When there is a call to action they show up.

INCOPESCA has a history of making regulations that they have no interest or is impossible to enforce. For example, when you see a longline offshore, every other buoy is supposed to have the identification number of the owner on it. The regulation has been in effect for 5 years and none of them have it. Often these lines are left unattended. Illegal hooks and using live bait in restricted areas is common. Often sailfish that could have and are supposed to be released are killed and brought to port to sell.

Commercial longliners were ordered to have VMS tracking devices on their boats in 2014. Nine years later it is finally reported they all have them now. Then INCOPESCA decided the sport fishing fleet should have them and gave them a month to comply which was recently extended for 3 months. The device costs around $700 and has a monthly user fee. The system will be monitored by INCOPESCA and I can image the spaghetti mess on the screen with 850 boats running around the ocean.

I remember a time when the charter fishing sector was much smaller but everyone knew each other and got along for the most part. By working together, they nearly got protection for sailfish and were only waiting for the Minister of Agriculture to show up to sign the decree but commercial fishermen put pressure on the Minister and he didn´t show. It has been a one sided battle over sailfish ever since. More than 16,000 die each year legally by the commercial fleet and many more illegally.

Often charter crews finish their day in the local watering hole and talk to each other about the day´s fishing. They raise 5 or 6 sailfish and talk about the great day they had. In truth, your day sucked! Get on the web and look at catch reports from Guatemala. \\That is how Costa Rica used to be. Here in the last dozen years catch rates for sailfish by sport fishing have dropped as much as 70% while catch rates of dead sails by commercial fishermen has increased by over 120%. If enough tourists weren´t nervous about traveling to Guatemala many here would be putting their boats up for sale and closing shop.

How did Guatemala do it? Well first the sport fishermen united. Second they had a Minister of Tourism that truly understood the value of sport fishing for the country. The result was full protection for sailfish from the commercial fleet and a respect for the fish by the sport fishing fleet.

What can we do to change things?

The first thing to do to fix a problem is to admit there is one. Many of the Charter Operations may not have been in business here long enough to realize just how much the fishing has changed. Others don´t want to talk about it publicly for fear of losing potential clients.

 We can learn something from the longliners. Uniting. We have to unite and work together or we will have no sailfish to attract tourists. We now have more sport boats than longline boats and by footing 75% of the financial gain for license fees, the only thing we are lacking is a united voice. It is easier to complain about things than to face them head on and work together. We have two major faults. We consider each other as a threat or competition rather than brothers and sisters. We are battling for the same customers and don´t communicate with each other and live in our own little world rather than working together.

For the first time in a couple of decades we now have a Minister of Tourism, William Rodriquez who fully understand the importance and value of tourist fishing to Costa Rica and especially the coastal communities.

You probably didn’t know but recently when the government produced a new “canasta basica,” which is a list of around 200 items that are taxed a 1% instead of the normal 13%.

This makes these items more affordable to low income Costa Ricans. INCOPESCA lobbied hard to include sailfish on the list. Minister Rodriquez and Canatur president Ruben Acon fought hard to keep sailfish off the list due to their importance to the tourism sector and convinced the Ministers of the Economy and Taxes to exclude them.

A healthy sailfish population has a domino effect on tourism. 13% of all tourist´s main reason for coming here is to fish and the main species they seek is sailfish. They also bring their families, stay in hotels, eat in restaurants, take other tours use transport companies and buy souvenirs. Marina businesses and real estate companies also benefit.

The fight to save sailfish will soon heat up so please take a minute and send a short note to Minister of Tourism William Rodriquez at and President of Canatur Ruben Acon at and thank them for realizing how import fishing tourism is  to the country and thanking them for their efforts to support it. Ask other businesses that benefit from fishing tourists to do the same and visit your local chamber of commerce and ask them to do the same. Let´s become one voice. We are only as good as our team. How about for once we become a team.

In Costa Rica while the commercial fleet is pretty good about hiding their sins, the sport fishing fleet put theirs all over the internet for the whole world to see.

As ridiculous as it is and not well thought out, there is a five fish total per day limit on eating fish for sport fishing. If you have 6 people on your charter, legally someone must go without even though they paid a good price to go fishing. The whole regulation needs to be re-thought and find a regulation with a little common sense. Charter operators post pictures of mother loads of fish showing they are ignoring the law rather than lobbying to change it

And my pet peeve!

Since December of 2008 is has been against the law to pull a billfish up over the gunnel for a photograph. It has been proven this practice hurts the fish and lowers the fish’s chance of survival. The Charter fleet screams out that, “we practice catch and release and are responsible,” while the whole time the commercial fleet is laughing at us as hypocrites.

It is a vicious cycle. A tourist goes to the internet looking for fishing opportunities. He sees photo after photo of clients holding giant billfish inside the back of a boat and books a trip. If he is lucky enough to catch one himself, the client wants the same photo. The crews, who rely on tips don´t want to upset the client and here comes another sail over the gunnel.

It´s not all charter operations but I opened 15 at random on their websites and 11 out of 15 had photos of sailfish dragged across the gunnel on board for a photo. Many of those fish even though released might not make it.

It is an easy fix. First take all photos of fish out of the water off your website. Sell the sizzle not the steak. If your webmaster doesn´t have access to action jump shots or hero shots with the fish in the water, you need to find a new webmaster. I have a standing rule with Crocodile Bay crews.

You pull a fish out of the water, you lose your job. The crews are required to give a quick orientation when a client boards the boat explain where the safety equipment is, how to use a boat toilet, methods we fish, and explain why we don´t take fish out of the water for photos. 99% of clients understand and agree and are happy they were told in advance. Any good crew in the country should do the same.

The fine for pulling a billfish out of the water and on the boat is 2 million colones or roughly $3670 at today´s exchange rate. You can be prosecuted by the evidence you posted on your website. Fortunately for many, INCOPESCA has no interest or no authority to prosecute the laws they make for both commercial and tourist fleets.

For the last 13 years, annually I have published articles trying to politely educate the sport fishing sector about pulling fish out of the water with articles similar to Costa Rica Fishing: The Evolution of the Hero Shot : (

The problem has only gotten worse. So now this bear has left the cave and is pissed off.

I have always had a reputation with my employees of being strict but also being fair. I did this by listening to all sides of a conflict before making a decision and by always telling them what I was going to do before I did it. If a saw a problem I would discuss it with the group, explain what action I expected to correct it, and what I what I was going to do if the problem continued.

So this is what I am going to do about my pet peeve. A few years ago I did a piece  about billfishing in Costa Rica with a sidebar about choosing a charter boat. It was well received and republished by many travel companies.

I couldn´t cover much in a sidebar in my last publication on the topic so I will soon publish a detailed article about how to choose a charter for your fishing vacation in Costa Rica. It is a big investment and people should have the best experience possible. One thing I will stress is check out the website first. If there are photos of sailfish inside the boat, keep looking for another operation because it shows that company is not a responsible operation or concerned with releasing the fish in the best shape possible.

With the power of social media, I will boost the article to as many travel companies that book Costa Rica I can reach, as most of them don´t know much about fishing but love content to share with folks asking them about fishing.

Together we can bring the sailfish population back to Costa Rica but we have to fight for it. Look at yellowfin tuna as an example. It went from next to nothing to being a common catch by sport fishermen. It just didn´t happen. It took a fight.

As I slowly come out of this fog I have been living in for the last year and a half, I realize after nearly 70 trips around the sun, I am less concerned about making new friends or pleasing people. I am much more concerned about having fish in the ocean for my grandchildren.

For More Information on this topic contact Todd Staley at: 

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