San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Ocean Baselines Shifting

A VERYimportant conceptfor Costa Rica’sdivers and waterlovers to grasp iscalled shifting baselines.This termrefers to the graduallowering of standardsof what werepristine, wildoceans.Young or newdivers in Costa Ricathink that the lifethat swims around them is healthy, but it isnot compared to just 10 years ago. Theyounger or urban people tend to be cluelessof the ocean’s real losses due to over fishingand contamination – shifting baselines.Many young tourist divers in CostaRica’s Pacific exclaim “Wow! I never sawso many fish.”Most of their fathers say, “We used tohave fish like this back home years ago.”On the Caribbean coast, you can replacethe word fish with the word coral. CostaRica’s Caribbean reefs were nothing specialnot to long ago, now they seem moreimpressive than those of many famousCaribbean dive destinations whoseunchecked development destroyed theirown healthy reefs, such as Jamaica.COSTA Ricans would do well toremember that shifting baselines causeshifting tourism. Ten years ago they werediving in Jamaica, now Costa Rica. Wherewill divers drop in 10 years?Ten years ago I saw a bull shark or twoon most dives at Caño Island. This year Ihave seen one once. Twenty years ago weused to take big sticks because at least oneof the 10 or more sharks seen on mostdives would come just a little to close forcomfort. I often wonder if the stickswould have prevented attacks 20 yearsbefore that.Kids diving with me at CatalinaIslands, off the Pacific coast ofGuanacaste, gushed with excitement overseeing a few white-tip sharks that took mehalf an hour to find. As a young diver atthese dive sites, I barely noticed the all thewhite tips all over because I was too busygawking at bull sharks and other big fish.This year I have not heard of any diversseeing any bull sharks during any dives atthe Catalinas.When I first started diving the southCaribbean coast in 1985, an occasional bigfish, like an old grouper or snapper or jack,would swim by every time down.NOW it seems like about every 50dives you might see one of these big fish.What young divers consider a “big fish”now, we called small not so long ago. MostCosta Ricans already know that the same istrue for the Caribbean coast’s coral as wellas the famous Cocos Island coral reefs.I doubt if I could have done my offshoreblue-water action diving tour 20-30 yearsago. Old-timers tell me nobody could get inthe water back then because of too much ofa feeding frenzy every day. Nowadays it’srare that I do not get in the water during offshoreblue-water feeding action. There arejust not that many sharks left.The solution is simple to write, harder tocarry out. Stop dumping so much in the water and stop taking so much out. And just as important: protect a few areas frombeing destroyed. Marine protected areas are nurseries to repopulate commercial-useareas and wild gene banks that will pay dividends in the future (if they are still wild).Costa Rica needs to protect several crucial marine areas that are being plundered.Every year I since I began this column with The Tico Times I have pleaded for themand, if I may, I remind you here again. The most diverse and healthy reefs of CostaRica’s south Caribbean are offshore and unprotected because original plannersthought the coral was only close to shore.SADLY this leaves Costa Rica’s best Caribbean diving just outside of theGandoca-Manzanillo National Wildlife Refuge’s marine protected area. This area isalso heavily used by various dolphin and whale species that could probably use moreprotection as well. All other protected marine areas in Costa Rica extend to twice thedistance offshore as Gandoca-Manzanillo. Forming this new marine protected areawould be uncontested.The Catalina Islands are probably the most-dived sites in Costa Rica. You wouldthink they would have been protected long ago. They are deteriorating faster than allof the Costa Rican dive sites I know. A marine protected area for the region wouldgenerate money for all involved in tourism and commercial fishing.The waters of the ocean side of the Osa Peninsula to Caño Island are mostlyunprotected. These waters are the most productive in Costa Rica, from sardines towhales. They should be united into one big conservation area. If anywhere in sightof Caño Island is protected, many crucial marine habitats would be given a chance.This would include perhaps the only tropical deep-water offshore marine protectedarea accessible on a day trip.Where else in the world can you see thousands of dolphins together on a regularbasis?This area would be a great bargaining chip in Costa Rica’s quiver. Mainland CostaRica does not protect any blue water areas, perhaps being the only misrepresentedecosystem. The mysterious, beautiful and amazing blue-water offshore ecosystemneeds protection.COMMERCIAL fishers would benefit greatly from the vast nursery, whosespawn would be swept north with the current, forever recharging most of Costa Rica’sPacific. Tourism and biotechnology of the future would also benefit from this andother new protected areas.No reports from divers the last few weeks. Is anybody diving?Contact 835-6041 or e-mail with contributions to thereport or for information. See for lots more informationabout shifting baselines around the world.

Comments are closed.