The seemingly eternal shark-fishing debate in Costa Rica, which recently earned President Abel Pacheco the dubious distinction of “Shark Enemy of the Year,” continues with no end in sight to the disagreement between environmentalists and fisheries officials.
At stake, according to environmentalists, are the shark populations in Costa Rican waters, already severely depleted because of overfishing; at stake, according to fisheries officials, is the right of fishermen to earn a living.
The board of directors of the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), the government agency in charge of enforcing the 2005 Fishing Law, recently asked the Government Attorney’s Office to annul a ruling stating the institute must abide by the office’s interpretation of the law when it comes to shark fishing.
In a document stating that threats to biodiversity and natural resources should be weighed against threats to fishermen’s lifestyles and sources of income, INCOPESCA last month requested that the Government Attorney’s Office annul its Jan. 25 pronouncement that sharks must be unloaded onto docks with their fins naturally attached to their bodies. The ruling was the second such statement in eight months.
Article 40 of the country’s Fishing Law, which took effect in April last year, bans shark finning, the practice of cutting off sharks’ fins, which fetch lucrative profits, and throwing the sharks’ lesser-valued bodies back to sea. Sometimes the mutilated sharks are still alive and bleed to death, environmentalists charge.
Costa Rica’s finning controversy was unmasked in 2003 after a Tico Times investigation revealed that approximately 30 tons of shark fins were unloaded at a private dock in the Pacific port city of Puntarenas without the carcasses attached (TT, July 11, 2003).
According to Costa Rica’s new Fishing Law, shark fishing is legal only when sharks are unloaded at docks whole – that is, with their respective fins attached to their bodies (TT, July 8, 2005).
The Fisheries Institute, however, has interpreted the law to encompass artificially attached fins, and allows vessels to unload fins tied with nylon string or rope to the sharks’ bodies, a system that environmentalists charge permits fishermen to tie several fins onto one shark body, or to save space in boats’ freezers by mismatching larger, more valuable fins to smaller shark bodies.
Agriculture Vice-Minister Walter Ruiz, a member of the INCOPESCA board of directors, insisted a large fin on a small body would not make it past the dock inspectors.
If that were to happen, it would be “corruption,” he told The Tico Times.
After the Legislative Assembly approved the Fishing Law last year, a group of 20 legislators approved INCOPESCA’s interpretation of attached as including artificially attached fins.
The Government Attorney’s Office, however, spoke out against this interpretation and announced fins must be attached naturally to shark bodies (TT, Dec. 23, 2005).
The order has been ignored by INCOPESCA, according to spokesman Hugo Solano, who admitted the institute continued to allow artificially attached fins to be unloaded after obtaining the legislators’ support last May (TT, Jan. 20).
In a phone interview from Puntarenas earlier this month, INCOPESCA Technical Director Marvin Mora said that in its Feb. 2 petition, the institute did not seek a reinterpretation of the law, but merely sought permission to make a cut on the fins without completely removing them from the shark bodies, allowing fishermen to fold the fins and maintain greater storage space in their vessels’ freezers.
However, last week, when questioned more about the contents of the request, Mora said he was not familiar with the exact terms of the petition, which was not drafted by him but by the institute’s board of directors.
INCOPESCA legal adviser Edwin Salazar, who signed the request – which The Tico Times saw but cannot obtain a copy of until the Government Attorney’s Office issues an answer – agreed the board of directors, which includes Minister of Science and Technology Fernando Gutiérrez and Agriculture Vice-Minister Ruiz, is responsible for it.
Ruiz told The Tico Times he supports artificial attachment, explaining that if fins are not removed, they affect the storage capacity of freezers.
“Letting them stay naturally attached is like sticking airplanes in a warehouse,” he said.
Francisco Guevara, another of the board’s 11 members, explained the institute’s mission is to look after fishermen as well as the country’s natural resources.
“We must have rational exploitation; there must be sustainability,” said Guevara, a cousin of the Libertarian Movement party’s Otto Guevara, a presidential candidate in the past two elections.
Guevara, who said his profession is fishing, highlighted that the legislators were very clear in their interpretation of the word “attached.”
“Our goal is to ensure shark finning no longer happens,” he said, explaining that tying fins to the shark bodies merely facilitates storage and transportation.
Eduardo Espinoza, executive director of the Puntarenas Fishermen’s Chamber, explained sharks are frozen on the boat after they are caught to preserve freshness, and it’s difficult and impractical to saw them off later after they are unloaded.
Espinoza, who worked as operational manager for a Taiwanese company in Puntarenas until July 2005, said most fins harvested worldwide are shipped for consumption in Asian countries, including Taiwan and China.
Randall Arauz, president of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), a nonprofit marine conservation organization that works to eliminate shark finning in the country, said rather than fighting it, INCOPESCA encourages the practice.
“In spite of two rulings by the Attorney General, reached after comprehensive and transparent consultation with all stakeholders, INCOPESCA continues policies that clearly promote shark finning and which have brought our nation international shame. The President is paying the consequences and has received the ‘International Shark Enemy of the Year’ Award. And it’s no surprise. Every time legislation is created to control shark finning, the fishery authorities appointed by the President look for loopholes to circumvent the law,” he said in a PRETOMA statement.
In January, the German-based International Society for Conservation and Protection of Sharks, known as Sharkproject E.V., declared President Pacheco “Shark Enemy of 2005” in a ceremony celebrated in Düsseldorf, Germany, and attended by PRETOMA president Arauz (TT, Jan. 20).