San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Country’s Fisheries Dangle by Thin Line

First in a five-part series on the challenges facing Costa Rica’s fisheries

It was just after dawn in San José’s dungeon-like Mercado Central when Juan Luis Delgado sank his knife into pale white flesh, slicing it along his limp victim’s spine.

He threw a bit of bone and intestine to a stray dog, and smiled.

“When I first opened this shop, Costa Ricans didn’t eat fish. They would come in, look over our offerings, and I would hear them say, ‘That must be contaminated,’” said Delgado, a lanky man who earned his pasty skin in 17 years as owner of Pescadería La Despensa, in the heart of the cavernous Central Market. “Now, people can’t get enough of it.”

Delgado sells 2,500 kilograms of seafood weekly, and his pescadería is but one of dozens in the market.

It’s good news for Delgado, who has devoted his life to selling fish to the Central Valley’s booming population, but bad news for the country’s straining fish stocks, which every day grow more depleted by the increasing demand – both here and abroad.

Costa Rica’s fish consumption – about 6 kilograms per capita annually (compared with the United States’ 7.5 kg in 2004) – grows each year, according to Randall Ramírez, director of marketing for the Costa Rican Fisheries Institute (INCOPESCA), the government agency that oversees the sector.

The world’s appetite for the country’s fish exports – which crested $100 million last year – grows even faster.

Between 1980 and 2000, Costa Rica’s export of fish products jumped 1,175%, according to statistics from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization.

The spike coincides with a dramatic upswing in fishing pressure along the tiny country’s disproportionately long 1,228 kilometers of coastline (by comparison, the U.S. state of California has 1,351 km).

The increased pressure is crippling fish populations and marine resources, say environmentalists and marine biologists.

“Catch rates have plummeted but demand has grown, so we’ve seen a huge increase in fishing pressure to compensate,” explained Randall Arauz, director of the Marine Turtle Restoration Program (PRETOMA), one of the country’s most active marine conservation groups. “We’re over-fishing, and now we’re starting to pay the price.”

INCOPESCA, the government institution charged with managing the country’s fish and fishermen, has new leadership with a new vision – but it may be too little, too late, Arauz said.

“This problem is nothing new. It’s been going on for decades,” he said.

Fishermen Struggle

When the delivery truck arrives at the Mercado Central before dawn each morning, Delgado hears the gossip that makes the two-hour ride alongside shrimp and fish from the Central Pacific port city of Puntarenas.

Prices are rising, he says. Fishermen are concerned by dwindling catches. Polluted runoff from the country’s notoriously filthy rivers is killing fish.

The government’s solutions – from closed seasons to fuel subsidies for fishermen and alternative work programs – are flailing, corrupt or useless, say fishermen interviewed by The Tico Times.

The problem, explains PRETOMA’s Arauz, is that Costa Rica’s Pacific and Caribbean coastlines have always been a sort of free-for-all whose harvests have gone largely unregulated.

The chaos has come ashore in the form of poverty stricken families, depleted fisheries and a desperation that has led to an alarming increase in fishermen turning to coastal drug running.

According to Antonio Porras, technical director of INCOPESCA, the disorder resulted from a lack of regulation. The country had no single, comprehensive law to govern the nation’s fisheries until 2004, when the Legislative Assembly passed the National Fisheries Law.

Until recently, he explained, fishing simply didn’t matter in San José, the country’s land-locked capital, which sits hours by traffic-tangled road from either coast.

“We have always been a country of farmers, not fishermen.We have historically done very little to manage our fisheries, or care for our fishermen,” Porras said.

It’s a scary thought, he explains, especially in a country that benefits from an exclusive economic zone, or marine territory, of 640,000 square kilometers – more than 10 times its land territory, according to INCOPESCA statistics.

While Costa Rica’s fishing industry is still just a smidgen of its economy – just 0.32% of its gross domestic product in 2002 – it is critical in Puntarenas, where 80% of the country’s seafood comes ashore and an entire industry, from bars to seafood markets, restaurants and motor-repair shops, thrives.

“In the Gulf, a child of 15 years starts to fish with his dad – it’s the only way they know how to make a living,” Porras said. “Fishing is the motor that drives the economy.”

Trade in Fish

According to the semi-private Foreign Trade Promotion Office (PROCOMER), Costa Rica’s primary exports are fresh fish filets to the United States, canned tuna, distributed largely in Latin America and Europe, and fresh, whole dorado, a fish abundant offshore along Costa Rica’s nutrient- rich Pacific coast.

INCOPESCA’s Randall Ramírez estimates that roughly half of Costa Rica’s total national catch of 15.5 million kilograms (in 2005), is exported. Of that half, about 61% goes to the United States.

The numbers, however, are skewed by the one fish noticeably absent from Delgado’s display cases – and one of the hardest fished species in the country’s sprawling economic zone: tuna.

“What we see here are seconds, or thirds – and I won’t sell that to my customers. The good tuna all gets exported,” Delgado told The Tico Times.

The foreign fleets gargantuan, 22 million-kilogram catch of tuna dwarfs that of all other species combined – but because the costs of operating an industrial tuna boat are significantly higher in Costa Rica than neighboring countries, explained INCOPESCA’s Porras, the fleet is dominated by the flags of such countries as Belize, Taiwan, and Indonesia, among others.

It’s money that never enters the coffers of Costa Rican fishermen, but right now, said Porras, the country is doing all it can.

Nearly 70% of foreign fleet’s tuna catch is processed inside the country, he said – most of it canned or prepared for export – providing work for factories, shipping facilities and ice dealers.

“Of course, we are looking for ways to make a Costa Rican tuna fleet possible, but for now, it’s just not economically feasible,” he said.

A New Plan

Despite ailing conditions offshore, Delgado and other fish market owners in the Central Valley say they’ve hardly been affected by declining fisheries, thanks mostly to the sudden spike in demand for aquaculture products – which have begun to replace the pricier wild fish.

Delgado says he was the first in his corner of the Mercado Central to begin selling tilapia, a farm-raised, freshwater fish that now constitutes 65% of the country’s total aquaculture products.

“Now, it’s probably my best-selling product,” he says. “In five years, I wouldn’t be surprised if that was all I was selling.”

He says most people like farm-raised products for their uniformity and stable prices, though some have come to understand they’re more sustainable than finite, wild-caught fish.

INCOPESCA executive president Carlos Villalobos – who took office in November of last year and has since taken to revamping the institute – believes aquaculture, both inland and at sea, is the future of the industry.

He is working on a plan that he says could revitalize the country’s fishing industry, both socially and economically, by replacing wild fisheries with farmed ones, allowing ocean stocks to recover. It would become a sustainable model for the world, he said.

But no official announcements have come yet – so Delgado, in his shady corner of the Mercado Central, will continue doing as he’s doing, hoping that his luck doesn’t run out.

Next: The Tico Times explores how the Central American Free-Trade Agreement with the United States (CAFTA) would affect the country’s exports of fish products.


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