San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Customs Violates Constitution, High Court Rules on Shark-Finning Issue

THE Constitutional Chamber of the SupremeCourt (Sala IV) has ruled that the Costa RicanCustoms Office violated the Constitution by allowingtons of shark fins to be unloaded at private dockswithout inspectors present.The court concluded that in allowing the landings,the Customs Office violated Article 50 of theConstitution, which guarantees all Costa Rican citizensthe right to a healthy and balanced environment.The court also ruled customs officials havetaken an undue amount of time to handle a complaintfiled by the Sea Turtle Restoration Program(PRETOMA), in which the non-governmental organizationrequested that customs officials applyadditional precautionary measures to prevent furtherfin landings, and gave the organization untilJune 4 to do so. The ruling does not specify whatthe precautionary measures should be.MEMBERS of PRETOMA, who announced theMay 26 ruling late last week, said the Customs Officehas yet to notify the environmental organization of asolution, “clearly violating the court ruling.”The resolution of the court also calls for an end tothe practice of shark finning, stating that customs that customs officials “should take all necessarymeasures to prevent shark finningand sanction opportunely and effectivelyall those persons who commit this act.”Finning, the act of slicing the covetedfins off a shark and discarding its lower-valuedbody in the ocean, is a lucrative practice.The fins fetch up to $200 a kilo in someAsian markets, where the fins are valued asan aphrodisiac and for medicinal purposes.The fins are normally ground into a powderand used to make soup, for which customerswill pay up to $60 per bowl.According to statistics from the PacificPort Authority (INCOP) provided by PRETOMA,27 of the 32 foreign long-line vesselsthat landed in Puntarenas in March ofthis year had Taiwanese captains.Costa Rica exported 818,000 kilogramsof fins in 2002, according toINCOPESCA statistics (TT, July 11,2003).PRETOMAsays the recent Sala IV rulingis not enough to stop the finning, whichis endangering shark populations off thecoast of Costa Rica.“THE only effective precautionarymeasure is to halt the landings of foreignvessels at private docks until they apply forpermits and are deemed in the public interestlike the law demands,” said PRETOMApresident Randall Arauz in a statement.“The only people who would be affectedby this action are those who are takingadvantage of lack of controls in order toland shark fins, evade taxes and subsequentlyharm the public interest. Closingthe private docks until they are authorizedis simply the only logical and effectivemeasure that exists,” he said.José Arce, chief legal advisor for theCustoms Office, told The Tico Times in astatement in March that the CustomsOffice is only responsible for regulatinginternational commerce, and that privatedocks are the responsibility of the Ministryof Public Works and Transport (MOPT)(TT, March 12).The Supreme Court agreed to reviewinjunctions PRETOMA filed against theCosta Rican Fishing and AquacultureInstitute (INCOPESCA), the CustomsOffice and the Division of Navigation andPort Security of MOPT, all pertaining towhat the environmental group claims iscomplacency on the part of these agenciesin response to the shark finning in CostaRican waters.THIS most recent ruling is the court’sfirst decision on any of the injunctions.A Tico Times investigation last yearrevealed that several Taiwanese fishingvessels were able to unload dozens of metrictons of sharks fins at private dockswithout their bodies attached, as requiredby Costa Rican fishing regulations (TT,July 11, 2003).However, regulations established inOctober of last year apparently allow thelanding of unattached fins by limiting thepercentage of shark product unloaded atCosta Rican docks to 7-16% fins. TheUnited States and European Union, in comparison,enforce a 5% fin-to-body ratio limit.PRETOMA claims this measureencourages fishermen to simply discardthe carcasses of larger sharks they catch(TT, Oct. 10, 2003).Experts consulted by The Tico Timessaid the hammerhead shark, which cangrow to lengths of up to 6 meters andweigh up to 1,000 pounds, is one of thespecies hardest hit by shark finning.The practice of shark finning, PRETOMAalleges, has resulted in a 60%decrease in the populations of sharks inCosta Rican waters during the past 10 years.A Costa Rican youth group has joinedPRETOMA in contesting the Costa Ricangovernment’s management of the problem.The Ombudsman’s Office announcedTuesday that the Cantonal Committee ofYoung Persons of Santo Domingo deHeredia, headed by 24-year-old activistAlberto Cabezas, filed a complaint againstINCOPESCA’s executive president, LigiaCastro.THE recent capture in the protectedwaters of Ecuador’s Galapagos Island Parkof an industrial ship flying a Costa Ricanflag indicates that the country is not onlyinvolved in fin processing and exports, butalso in catching sharks.A statement from the park said the shipwas caught using a long-line, a net severalnautical miles long.“Industrial fishing boats enter within40 miles (of the marine reserve) with themotive of catching sharks to cut their fins,which have a large commercial value inAsian markets,” the statement said.Since 2001, five Costa Rican shipshave been detained inside the GalapagosMarine Reserve.Long-line fishing nets often inadvertentlydrown various species of sea turtles,experts say. For example, scientists say thatthe use of the nets in Costa Rican waters hasdrastically reduced the regional populationof the American Pacific leatherback turtle,the world’s largest reptile.

Comments are closed.