San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Campaign Kicks Off to Protect Isla del Coco

Environmental groups and park rangers kicked off a national campaign this week to raise awareness about Isla del Coco – an island 365 miles off Costa Rica’s Pacific coast that famed oceanographer Jacques Cousteau once called “the most beautiful in the world.”

The three-month campaign to improve protection of Isla del Coco National Park, spearheaded by the Environment and Energy Ministry (MINAE) and conservation groups Marviva, Conservation International and others, will include a concert, television spots, billboards and advertisements on buses and public transportation.

The idea, according to Marviva spokeswoman Betsy Murillo, is “to generate an emotional tie with the park, so that the people of the country, private businesses and the government commit to protecting it.”

The groups have enlisted Costa Rican celebrities such as U.S.-Costa Rican astronaut Franklin Chang, who’s also lending his image to a campaign to better protect parklands in the Southern Zone’s OsaPeninsula, as well as Olympic gold-medal winner Silvia Poll, Saprissa soccer club goalie Francisco Porras, members of the Grammy-award winning musical group Editus and others.

The end goal is to raise both awareness and funds via donations made through the campaign’s Web site,, to assist in research and protection of the national park, which was declared a World Natural Heritage Site by the United Nations in 1997.

Despite the park’s remote location – it is accessible only by 36-hour boat ride – the area is threatened by illegal fishing and the introduction of invasive species, according to park director Fernando Quirós.

The country’s Fishing and Aquaculture Law prohibits all fishing in the 12-mile (197,000-hectare, or 1,977 square kilometers) marine protected area that rings the park.

According to Quirós, illegal fishing peaks during the months of July through October, when ocean currents and temperatures collide in an almost perfect storm of nutrients that makes the marine park very attractive to migratory fish species.

Species such as the region’s famous hammerhead sharks, tuna, sailfish and marlin are targeted by fishermen, who are constantly pushing the limits, according to Quirós.

“They set their lines just outside the park limits, and allow them to drift inside,” he said, adding that all boats fishing that far offshore have radar, Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and other technologies and are well aware of the regulations.

“Not a single day passes during the peak season when we don’t find someone fishing illegally,” he said.

The problem, he said, is catching them. Park guards have just two boats to protect the entire area.

Each boat costs $30,000 a month to maintain and operate in this remote marine environment – a prohibitively large sum that has made it all but impossible for the government to finance more.

Despite limited resources, park rangers last year confiscated 15,849 baited hooks, 4,500 buoys, 727 tuna, 192 sharks, 16 marlin, 7 sailfish, 21 sea turtles, 9 mahi mahi and 24 jack crevalle from inside the park boundaries. And these numbers are a just a snapshot of the total, Quirós explains.

“We simply don’t have enough boats or manpower to take care of this problem,” Quirós said.

Kifah Sasa, coordinator of an inter-institutional project to improve the management and conservation of the park, emphasized that the campaign wants to end fishing inside the park – but not everywhere.

He said the park is in fact critical to Costa Rica’s fishermen, because its rich waters are a breeding ground for many species.

“The island’s waters have strategic importance to the country and our fishing fleet,” Sasa said.

According to biologist Jorge Cortés, of the Center for Ocean and Limnology Research at the University of Costa Rica (UCR), the island is the first landmass struck by the nutrient- and fish-rich North Equatorial Counter Current.

That means many species of fish, plants, plankton and coral first arrived in the Americas at Isla del Coco – making it unique in the world and a region of incredible marine species diversity and density. More than 250 species of fish are found around the island.

“It is the port of entry to the entire Pacific coast of the Americas,” Cortés said.

He also emphasized the importance of the island territory (24 sq. km) – which is home to a large number of endemic species, but is being threatened by tens of thousands of rats, which compete with native plants and wildlife (TT, June 22).

Above all else, Cortés said, the island’s forests are unique because they receive rain. Other PacificIslands, such as the Galapagos, off Ecuador, are “like deserts,” he said.

According to park director Quirós, these unique elements are what make the park so valuable.

“It’s lost in the Pacific. Everyone has heard how beautiful it is, but few have visited. That’s why this campaign is so important,” he said.

National Parks Week Celebrated

National Parks Week kicked off Monday with celebrations throughout the northwestern province of Guanacaste.

The province, which includes Las Baulas National Marine Park, with a turtle-nesting ground along the Pacific coast, Rincón de la Vieja, which includes an active volcano north of Liberia, and others, was selected this year as a showcase for the celebrations.

Activities included lectures on the importance of protected areas, educational trips to various parks in the northwestern province, as well as visits to EARTHUniversity’s Guanacaste campus and the Africa Mia wildlife park.

As part of the festivities, according to the daily La Nación, the Costa Rican Post Office launched a postal stamp collection called National Parks 2007: Barva, Capital of Water and Art. The stamps will sell for ¢235 ($0.45) apiece.

Costa Rica, according to the National Biodiversity Institute in Heredia, north of San José, protects 26% of its national territory.

Isla del Coco Concert Tonight

What: Free concert to raise awareness of Isla del Coco.

Where: La Sabana Park, by the lake.

When: Tonight, 6-9 p.m.

Who: Editus, Baula Project, Cantoamérica, Son de Tikizia.

Why: To kick off the Isla del Coco National Park Campaign.

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