With officials debating a plan to build the world’s first yellowfin tuna farm at the mouth of the Golfo Dulce – celebrated for its diverse ecosystem and internationally renowned for its sportfishing – Costa Rica is diving into the controversial world of fish farming.
The project, which promises to more than quadruple the value of some of Costa Rica’s tuna stocks, has one last hurdle before it becomes a reality: an operation permit from the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA). It has already sailed through the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE), where critics charging contamination threats had hoped it would be stopped.
While the fish-farming debate emerged around the globe several years ago, it has only recently arrived on the coasts of Costa Rica, particularly the southern Pacific coast where the Golfo Dulce lies. If the yellowfin tuna-farming project is approved, it will be the first commercial fish-farming project in Costa Rica’s ocean waters.
The project is being developed by Granjas Atuneras de Golfito S.A. with capital from Spain and Venezuela. Like fishfarming supporters around the globe, the company’s local representative Eduardo Velarde, who is Peruvian, claims it is the answer to depleted wild fish stocks and impoverished local fishermen.
Environmentalists, also echoing international cries, worry the huge cages, which will hold 120 tons of tuna each, will devastate the delicate ecological balance of the Golfo Dulce. Furthermore, they claim the cages’ nets will entrap the whales, dolphins and turtles that migrate to the area and attract tourists from all over the world.
Sportsfishing companies and local fishermen have also voiced concerns their livelihoods could be harmed by the massive project – which could eventually encompass 40 kilometers of coastline between Punta Banco, which marks the southern entrance of the Golfo Dulce, and Punta Burica, near the Panama border. Most of Costa Rica’s record game fish were taken from these waters and they boast some of the best sailfish sportfishing in the world.
Just the Beginning?
The Granjas Atuneras farm proposes 10 giant circular cages/nets, 50 meters wide and 20 meters deep. The cages will be grouped together approximately 2.8 kilometers from the coast near Punta Banco.While the group of cages will take up much less space, the total concession would be 5 kilometers long and 2.5 kilometers wide. This will allow a buffer between their farm and future farms that could line the coast, Velarde explained.
Velarde calculates space exists for seven other similarly distanced concessions for a total of 70 more cages along the coast between Punta Banco and Punta Burica, to the south.
“There needs to be 4-5 kilometers between each group of cages,” he said. “When they first started fish farming, they kept all of the cages right next to each other, so if one fish sneezed the entire population was infected.”
For Velarde, this is just one example of how he has learned from mistakes made by early fish farms. An agriculture major and biology technician, Velarde says he has visited farms around the world and studied reports by fish farming companies and as well as respected environmental groups such as Greenpeace.
He has been sharing this information with the Costa Rican government during the past two years, earning him letters of support from President Abel Pacheco, Environment Minister Carlos Manuel Rodríguez, and Agriculture Minister Rodolfo Coto. But the general public hasn’t been similarly kept in the know, according to the private, nonprofit Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), which complains the project has lacked transparency.
“Nobody knows the details of the project, and they have been promoting it for two years,” said organization representative Noah Anderson.
The tuna project will begin with an initial investment of $3 million and four cages, with more being added in coming years, Velarde said. In addition, it will not initially be an actual fish farm, instead the project will essentially consist of holding cells for fresh tuna.
Tuna clippers at sea will report when they have a catch; Granjas Atuneras boats will then meet the clippers, remove some of the live tuna to their cages, and transport them to the cages along the coast. The tuna will then be grown for approximately three months before being sold fresh to U.S. markets.
Within seven or eight years the company hopes to be producing tuna from eggs and is working with a tuna research institute in Panama to these ends, Velarde said.
Considering this start, the project hardly helps dwindling fish populations, according to Denise Echeverría of the Marine Life Foundation, a nonprofit environmental organization that also works in the area and opposes the farm. Echeverría challenges whether the project can be called aquaculture at all.
“In modern aquaculture, the reproduction cycle has to be closed. The way this project is set up, it reduces the wild stock of tuna. They should be producing everything in a cycle from eggs,” she said. “It is very easy to go hunting and stick the tuna in a cage.”
Environment at Risk?
The Granjas Atuneras farms have already received approval from the Technical Secretariat of the Environment Ministry (SETENA), which reviewed the project’s environmental-impact study, and MINAE’s water department.
However, PRETOMA said the study is “full of holes.” “There is barely any mention of the many endangered species that live in or migrate to the Golfo Dulce… whales, dolphins, stingrays,” Anderson said. “We are talking about a wall of cages near the mouth of the Golfo Dulce. These species could get caught in the nets.”
PRETOMA is particularly concerned about the Olive Ridley turtles that nest on a beach near Punta Banco.
“During the nesting season the turtles are going to find a wall of net on their way to the beach,” Anderson said. “Turtles have nails on their fins that very easily get stuck in a net.”
Between 100 and 200 adult turtles nest on the beach from July to December, according to PRETOMA. They lay approximately 100 eggs each. These hatched turtles will also be challenged by the giant nets on their way out to sea, Anderson said.
However Velarde says turtles and other species will see the “wall” of cages and have no problem swimming around them.
Not all of MINAE supports the project. In giving its thumbs up, SETENA did not take into account the opinion of Environment Ministry staff who work in the area.
The Coastal Marine Commission of MINAE’s Osa Conservation Area reviewed the environmental-impact study and said it is greatly concerned about the feces that will be created by such a large number of fish in such a small space.
“According to the environmental-impact study, the currents move in such a way that the waste will be carried out to sea, away from the gulf. But we don’t have any studies of the currents to confirm this,” said MINAE’s Miguel Madrigal, coordinator of the commission.
“It’s like having more than 2,000 pigs floating in the ocean. They are similar in size and dimension; they defecate and produce a large amount of waste,” added Echeverría.
Velarde said the location south of the gulf ’s mouth is ideal for the tuna farms because it offers exceptionally deep waters while being close to the coast.
Not only is Madrigal concerned about fish feces, but also about the uneaten fish food that passes through the net.
Keeping the tuna fed will take 10 tons of sardines a day per cage, five-six days a week. Sportfishermen in the area have expressed concern that this mass feeding will involve absorbing the entire Costa Rican sardine population, which would offset the gulf ’s ecological balance because sardines serve as the base of the food chain, explained Roy Ventura, who has lived in the area since the 1950s and owns Roy’s Zancudo Lodge, a sportfishing lodge.
“I don’t see anything wrong with raising tuna, what I do see wrong is finishing off our production of bait,” he said.
But Velarde says this is not a concern because Granjas Atuneras plans to import sardines from Peru, Chile,Venezuela and Uruguay.
“I will need thousands of tons of sardines; I can’t get those here,”Velarde said.
Velarde said because they are a business, and nourishing the tuna will be a significant expense, they will be extremely efficient in the feeding.
“No matter how efficient they try to be, there is always some waste…logically this will have an impact on the equilibrium of the ecology,”Madrigal countered.
The Coastal Marine Commission’s concerns were sent to SETENA.
“But it seems SETENA didn’t take them into account,”Madrigal said.
Some of these concerns have been heard by INCOPESCA, which since January has been studying whether to grant Granjas Atuneras an operation permit.
Various members of the institution’s board of directors have been consulting external sources on various environmental questions, explained Alvaro Otarola, INCOPESCA’s head of aquaculture. For example, at a board meeting last month, members agreed to ask the University of Costa Rica and Universidad Nacional for their professional opinions on the tuna farm. Response is expected soon, Otarola said.
“From the technical point of view – the size of the cages, the volume of fishes… the project is viable,” Otarola said. “But there are concerns, and the board wants to make a well based decision. They are taking their time in order to understand all points of view.”
The case is particularly difficult because there are no fish farms with which the country has had experience, Otarola said.
A decision is expected before the current board’s term ends June 30, Otarola said.
If the INCOPESCA approval is granted, Velarde estimates the tuna farm could be up and running within four months.
Velarde estimates that 1,500-2,000 tons of tuna are fished off the shores of Costa Rica by tuna clippers. They are sold strictly for canned tuna, fetching approximately $1 a kilogram, he said.
By comparison, Granjas Atuneras plans to sell their fresh headed and gutted fish to restaurant and grocery suppliers in the United States for $7-12 a kilogram.
“Instead of selling Walmart tuna for the can for $1 a kilo, Costa Rica should focus on value-added, fresh fish,”Velarde said.
While several countries around the globe have had blue-fin tuna farms for decades, including Mexico, Panama, Japan and Australia, this would be the world’s first endeavor into commercial farming of yellowfin tuna, which is widely consumed in the United States. (Some experimental yellowfin farming projects do exist in Japan, however.)
It currently takes fresh tuna, caught on long lines and not meant for the can, 22 days to get from the sea to the market, Velarde said, claiming his farmed tuna will arrive within 24 hours.
The company plans to initially rent an unused government-owned processing plant in Golfito – an added gain for the government, Velarde points out. At this plant the fish will be cleaned, placed on ice and prepared for the truck to Juan Santamaría International Airport, outside San José, and flight to its final destination.
The least of Velarde’s worries is buyers. “They are lined up. Tuna is gold,” he said. The project’s initial investment of $3 million is expected to be expanded to $8 million within seven years. In addition, Velarde foresees the purchase of a 747 airplane for the sizeable amount of exports and the construction of a processing plant.
He hopes to see the construction of an international airport in the Southern Zone for his exports and those of other fish farms. The government is still in the early planning stages of such an airport, which would be located in Palmar Sur, off the Inter-American Highway (TT, March 31). In addition to the 40-60 direct jobs provided by the farm, the plant will require an additional 60 jobs, Velarde estimates. Hundreds of other indirect jobs will also be created, he claims. Velarde said he is also providing a service by teaching a valuable trade to the region.
“Aquaculture is in diapers. These people will become skilled in mariculture, and can eventually start their own farms,” he said.
But the Marine Life Foundation’s Echeverría worries about the basic principle of running a business in the waters of a wildlife site.
“They will in the future look to grow, they will look for greater profits and more efficiency, reducing costs… and who knows to what effects,” she said. “This is just the beginning. If we give permission to this farm, more will be granted down the line.”
Tico Times reporter María Gabriela Díaz contributed to this report.
Fish Farming: Solution for the Future?
The statistics are alarming – 52% of the world’s fish are fully exploited; 17% of the world’s fish are overexploited and 7% of the world’s fish are depleted. Only 23% of fish populations are moderately or underexploited, according to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).
Experts have warned for years that the world’s oceans simply cannot provide for the huge global demand for smoked salmon, sushi and canned tuna. Average consumption of fish per person has almost doubled in fewer than 50 years, according to FAO.
Farmed fish may provide a solution. For the past two decades, the world has slowly turned to aquaculture as a way to provide the seafood the world’s population demands. In 1980, farmed fish amounted to approximately 10% of total fish commercially obtained for consumption. In 2001, the amount reached 34%.
One of the most famous cases of a country taking advantage of the growing demand, but decreasing natural supply of fish is Chile. Twenty years ago Chile had no salmon farms and exported no salmon. A government initiative kick-started the industry and today the country exports approximately $1.5 billion in farmed salmon.
Aquaculturist Eduardo Velarde says it’s time for Costa Rica to follow suit, although with other fish. Though tilapia breeding in fresh water has become common here, the country has yet to venture into any commercial ocean-water farms.
Costa Rica has 500,000 square kilometers of ocean territory, compared to only 51,000 square kilometers of land mass. Velarde, who is Peruvian, maintains the country has a gold mine of fish-farm opportunities along its coasts. He says aquaculture can provide the poor coastal communities of Golfito, in the southern Pacific, Puntarenas, in the central Pacific, and Limón, on the Caribbean, with much-needed jobs.
In addition to his well-advanced, but not-yet-fully approved project near the Golfo Dulce, Velarde envisions farming snapper, corvina and tuna off the Gulf of Nicoya, near Santa Rosa National Park in the northwest corner of the province of Guanacaste, and in Cahuita, on the Caribbean coast near the national park of the same name.
Velarde says he feels a responsibility to the fishermen in these areas who have been told they cannot fish in protected waters, essentially depriving them of their livelihood.
“Costa Rica has great potential in aquaculture, particularly in the Gulf of Nicoya,” agreed Alvaro Otarola, head of aquaculture at the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA).
INCOPESCA is working with the Puntarenas Marine Park and the Taiwanese government to create a pilot program for snapper farming from eggs in the Gulf of Nicoya.
“We want to convert fishermen into producers,” Madrigal said. However, the blue revolution – as the fish farm expansion has been called in reference to the agricultural green revolution of the 1970s – has faced fierce opposition from environmentalists who say farmed fish is unsustainable, stuffed with antibiotics and often feeds off smaller captured fish, thus equally resulting in depleted fish in the ocean.
The Marine Life Foundation, a nonprofit Costa Rican environmental organization, says though fish farming has been around for decades, much remains unknown, particularly regarding the fish Velarde hopes to farm in Costa Rica.
“This is very experimental,” she said. “The country should be very worried,” she said. “The government should be very cautious.”